After reading the negative reviews on this novel, I wanted to set the record straight for those considering reading it.
First and foremost, this is Kristin Cashore's third novel, an extension of the stories begun in Graceling and Fire. These books tell the stories of two wildly different young women: Katsa, a Graced killer, and Fire, a beautiful human Monster. Each of these first two books differs greatly in tone, since Fire is a much more fragile girl than Katsa, who is wildly independent and self-sufficient. Bitterblue is named for the main character, Queen Bitterblue, who is yet another unique heroine. The books do not need to be read in order for readers to enjoy the stories, though this order does present some unique insights into the development of Leck's character.
Fans of Cashore's work (myself included) have been anticipating Bitterblue for a couple of years now, and I think that many readers, especially teens, were expecting Bitterblue to be as action-packed as the first two novels. These readers may find themselves disappointed, as this is the tale of a queen who (mostly) plays it safe, remains within her city, and has no special talent for fighting or mind control. Aside from having been born queen, Bitterblue is a normal human being, which is actually rather refreshing, since readers are not Gracelings or Monsters themselves. It gives us an idea of what it feels like to muddle through the Seven Kingdoms world without special, inborn talents. Though this change of character yields very different results from her first two books, it demonstrates Cashore's stylistic nimbleness and prevents her from following the same formulaic, cookie-cutter structures as other authors. I think that many of the people who dislike this book do so because they anticipated a series like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, in which the story is one continuous arc unified by a single main character. This is not Cashore's yarn and I, for one, love her for it.
On the other hand, one way in which all three characters are similar is their sexual freedom, which is refreshing and necessary for young women to see and understand. As twenty-something woman who has spent her fair share of time feeling that sexuality was for boys only, I can honestly say that the care with which Cashore treats the topic of young feminine sexuality is careful, honest, and liberating. Very few YA authors allow female characters to actively participate in their own sexuality, which is too bad. In our post-feminist age, the repression of women's sexuality serves as a patriarchal yoke under which women still struggle despite our supposedly liberated status. All of Cashore's heroines make active choices with regards to romantic companionship; both Fire and Katsa are presented with young men whom they could marry who are acceptable candidates in that they are rich, handsome, and friends, but the chemistry just isn't right, and so each young woman walks away. Meanwhile, Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue all pursue matches who are men they truly respect and with whom they feel a compatibility of spirit, regardless of rank and convenience. Furthermore, marriage is not pressed as a required state for feminine sexuality to take place, but is offered as a possible state of being for couples who feel comfortable with that level of commitment. I know that this take on marriage and sexuality will be bothersome to some readers, but I feel that this is a conversation that in our Twilight-obsessed world is too often overlooked, to the detriment of young women the world over.
The other reason why I loved Bitterblue was because it is a mind-bender. It's like reading a Sherlock Holmes novel in some ways, because little hints and clues from the very first chapter carry over throughout the remainder of the novel. Bitterblue faces betrayal in the present and specters of her family's past, and Cashore does not shy away from these touchy subjects, even though it would certainly have been easy to do so. Yes, there are certainly moments in the novel which most readers will find uncomfortable, but Cashore is willing to take her readers into the dark recesses of the human spirit in order to shed light and prove that tragic histories are not prophecies of future doom. I think that many teens with troubled pasts will find Bitterblue's struggles validating and reassuring because the novel promises that there can be peace after terror.
Overall, Cashore is an author of incredible dexterity. Her work reminds me of Tamora Pierce's writing in many ways (an author she herself claims as a source of great inspiration), and I anticipate only great things from her in the future, whatever characters and universes she chooses to bring to life.