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Helen Lowe on the Fantasy Heroines That Rock Her World: Bitterblue from Kristin Cashore’s BITTERBLUE (Graceling)

HelenL2-1 (2)Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013 and Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three) is forthcoming in January 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

The Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World

by Helen Lowe

In “Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World” I am shining a spotlight on favorite Fantasy heroines, not only revealing who they are but why I believe they kick butt and take names as characters.

A heroine that’s right up there for me is Bitterblue, from Kristin Cashore’s book of the same name. In fact, Bitterblue may just be my favorite of Kristin Cashore’s heroines… But before exploring the reasons why, I’ll provide a brief synopsis of the opening setting.

Bitterblue is a sequel to Kristin Cashore’s debut novel, Graceling, and also—although less directly—to her second novel, Fire. At the end of Graceling, Bitterblue had become the child-queen of Monsea, following on from the death of her evil father, Leck, who has terrorized Monsea for thirty-five years. Bitterblue commences eight to nine years after those events, when the character Bitterblue is eighteen and still ruling Monsea, together with advisors appointed by her uncle (who rules another country, Lienid.) On the surface all is progressing well, but as is so often the way, what lies beneath is another story…

Now back to those reasonsz why I ‘heart’ the character of Bitterblue. The most important reason arises from the story itself, which is a tale of consequences. The notion of consequences matters a great deal to me as a storyteller, not least because I read or view so many tales where the characters appear to exist in a consequence-free zone. It doesn’t seem to matter what happens to them in terms of death, destruction, or disaster: on they sail, emotionally and psychologically unscathed. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—pfft!

Yet when you think about it for all of, I don’t know, one second, a country that has been terrorized for thirty-five years is most likely to be in the grip of collective PTSD. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the case in Monsea. So Bitterblue, as queen, is a young woman who is dealing with consequences: for herself, as the daughter of a sadistic father, whom she saw murder her mother; among her advisors, who also served under Leck; and in her country.

So first and foremost, I love Bitterblue as a character because of the process I work through with her as a reader: first of recognizing the nature of what she is dealing with, and secondly of stubbornly, doggedly, and courageously beginning to address it, despite considerable personal cost.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” he said. She tried. She really did. She couldn’t.
“Whisper it…” he said. … Three words. It would only take three words and then he would understand. “[name redacted],” she whispered. “Jumped off.”

The second aspect of Bitterblue’s character that I really like is her strong sense of duty and desire to do the right thing, which is what drives her to set Monsea’s wrongs to right. Or to begin to, since the thing about dealing with consequences is that there is no quick or easy fix. The desire to do right is not the same thing as being perfect either , let alone getting it right all or even most of the time. But it is about being willing to try, and learn from mistakes, and to keep trying to do better. All qualities that Bitterblue has “in spades”:

“She was largely ignorant, she was trapped behind unknowable things, she was trapped behind things she knew but couldn’t admit she knew, she was a liar—and what she wanted was to be useful, logical, helpful. If a situation presented itself in which the right and the wrong seemed clear to her, then she was going to grab on tight.”

I like that Bitterblue is a character who is wise enough to know that right and wrong are not always clear, and discerning between them can be difficult—particularly in a country like Monsea.

I also like the fact that, unlike both Katsa (Graceling) and Fire, Bitterblue has no superpowers. She is brave, though, and willing to take risks, and she’s clever enough to unravel many of the mysteries left by Leck, but also by her mother, Ashen—one aspect of which involves breaking codes:

“Even before she’d bothered to count, she knew. She counted anyway, just to be sure. The carvings on the chest numbered a hundred. The carvings her mother had borrowed for her embroidery numbered twenty-six. Bitterblue was looking at a cipher alphabet.”

Wise, brave, stubborn, doggedly determined to do her duty and strive to do right in dealing with so many bitter consequences—and a codebreaker: it’s really no surprise at all that Bitterblue rocks my world.

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