I only really warmed up to the Graceling trilogy by Kristin Cashore with the second book, Fire (haha, get it? warmed up?) I’m so glad I stuck with it after my initial reservations because it just kept getting better and better. This is why all three books ended up with different ratings:
Graceling: (3 out of 5 Ramblebees)
Fire: (4 out of 5 Ramblebees)
Bitterblue: (5 out of 5 Ramblebees)
The overarching theme of the trilogy is young women finding their place in the world in the face of difficult choices, and reclaiming their kindness in adverse circumstances, both of which happen to be some of my favourite tropes.
Graceling is the first book in the trilogy. It tells the story of Lady Katsa, niece and executor to her tyrannical uncle, King Randa of the Midluns in the Seven Kingdoms. Marked as a graceling by her differently coloured eyes and graced with killing, she’s a threat to all who cross King Randa, until she decides to defy her uncle. She builds an underground organisation known as the Council which fights against the many abuses of power in the Seven Kingdoms. In the course of her work with the organisation, Katsa realises King Leck of Monsea is not all that he claims to be. As she races to rescue his ten-year-old daughter from his tyrannical clutches, she not only discovers new truths but new strengths as well.
Fire, the second book in the trilogy, is a prequel to Graceling. Set in a country East of the Seven Kingdoms, it tells the story of the Lady Fire, a so-called monster with colourful hair and the gift of reading and molding people’s thoughts. Her now dead monster father and abuser, once adviser to the king, has plunged the kingdom into upheaval with his taste for chaos. With civil war imminent, Fire has to decide whether or not to use her abilities without becoming like her father.
The third book, Bitterblue, picks up eight years after Graceling left off. The now eighteen-year-old Bitterblue is Queen of Monsea but feels like she has no knowledge about or control over her kingdom. Her advisers’ curious lies and evasions both about her father’s past reign and the present conditions in the kingdom lead her to investigate. With the support of Katsa and her Council friends, Bitterblue sets off in search of the truth and discovers that the wounds from her father’s reign she considered healed are more present than ever, and that it will be a long road towards recovery.
I enjoyed Graceling well enough, but it had a few flaws that nearly made me abandon the trilogy. The world-building was interesting and I liked the characters and their relationships with each other, especially the bond between Katsa and Bitterblue. However, plot-wise the book felt closer to a draft than a finished product. All of the important story elements were there, but they were rather loosely connected and didn’t quite knit together into a satisfying arc. The story could have benefitted from being stretched out a little, which would have made the plot twists less predictable.
I had gone into this book with high expectations because it had been recommended to me as great asexual representation several times, so I was a bit disappointed that the writing let down the great premise and characters. However, a friend assured me that I would enjoy the remaining books in the trilogy which led me to pick up Fire after all.
Fire still had some of the same weaknesses that Graceling did, but less markedly so. I again would have preferred a bit more stringency in pulling all the different story elements together, but the plot was overall coherent and satisfying. In spite of this, I found myself wishing time and time again that Fire had been the first book in the trilogy. I suspect that the author chose to publish the books out of chronological order so that the revelation of Leck’s grace would have more of an impact, but as mentioned above the twists in Graceling were predictable due to its slight incoherency. Only a couple of tweaks would have been necessary to publish the books in chronological order, which in my opinion would have worked in favour of coherency. Looking back while reading Fire, I appreciated Graceling a lot more, and I feel like I would have enjoyed it more if I had read Fire first.
The final book in the trilogy, Bitterblue, unequivocally blew me away. It picked up all the loose ends from the previous two books and combined them masterfully into a nail-biting finale. Cashore’s writing evolves wonderfully throughout the trilogy, and it was fascinating to see her real skills unfold and shine in this third book. The characters’ motivations were more implicit, which held me in suspense waiting for the myriad questions and inconsistencies to be resolved. Being fed the conclusion trickle by trickle was sweet agonising torture and I loved every bit of it. Bitterblue coming into her own as both a woman and a queen was exciting to watch. It was a bit different from both Katsa’s and Fire’s arcs considering that both of them had an inherent physical power that they needed to come to grips with, while Bitterblue had to consolidate and grow into a less tangible power, but the overarching theme was still very much present, tying all three of the books together.
I appreciated the fact that all three of the female main characters were allowed to be emotional and unreasonable at times without being labelled as hysterical. Emotional outbursts were treated as natural, and they didn’t result in the other characters respecting either Katsa, Fire, or Bitterblue any less.
In addition to her great treatment of women, Cashore also had a diverse cast of characters. Characters’ differing looks and complexions were described casually. There were a number of physically disabled characters. One important character and love interest loses his eyesight, another supporting character is without use of his legs and uses a wheelchair, and one of the main characters loses two fingers due to frostbite and has to relearn how to use her hand. Of course, there are also a whole slew of characters who suffer from trauma and related mental illness. A word of warning though: the circumstances that these characters’ trauma results from are brutal and upsetting, including emotional and physical abuse and even rape, so the trilogy might be triggering for some readers.
The queer representation was okay. Katsa can very easily be read as being on the asexual and aromantic spectrum, while Fire explicitly states her attraction to women and men. In spite of two out of three main characters being queer women though, all of the main relationships in the Graceling trilogy are M/F, which I found a bit disappointing. There are however two explicitly queer supporting couples, one of them F/F and one of them M/M.
Overall, I really ended up loving this trilogy, even though it didn’t start out as strong as it could have.