Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bitterblue: Fighting for Truth in a Kingdom of Lies

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

There will be spoilers.

Kristin Cashore's recently released Bitterblue, the sequel to Graceling, premiered at #2 on the New York Times Bestseller List. If early reviews and previous successes are any indication, the list of accolades will be impressive – and deservedly so. Ms. Kashore is a gifted writer who spends years honing her books, and it shows.


The story takes place approximately 10 years after Graceling ends. Bitterblue, once rescued from certain doom by Katsa and Po, now rules a kingdom still reeling from what Bitterlblue calls “the rape of her mind” by her maniacal father, the former king. He had subjected the realm to unspeakable cruelty with a Grace (a gift) that made people believe the lies he told to cover up his fixation with torture and murder. Many people disappeared when he was alive; many more still hide very dark secrets even though he is long gone.

Though the people are beginning to recover emotionally, physically, and economically, the new queen faces a daunting task. Overwhelmed by responsibilities and immersed in paperwork, Bitterblue passes her days isolated from not only her kingdom but also the servants in the castle. When she finally realizes that this isolation is orchestrated rather than incidental, and that her father’s legacy still rules from the grave, she determines to find out the truth of her father’s lingering influence for herself.

Bitterblue begins to leave the castle, slipping at night “ into a world of stories and lies.” A series of furtive campaigns into the city giver her an unfiltered view of the kingdom. The underground rebellion she finds slowly reveals what she must do to break the nation free from her father’s lingering horrors.

But her father was not the only one with a capacity for deceit, and Bitterblue has a lot to learn about what it means to rule – and live - with truth, justice, and integrity. Secretive advisors and lying friends may surround her, but some secrets are best kept hidden, and the deception of friends may sometimes be a gift. Bitterblue has no Graces, but she has heart, determination, and a longing for truth. Will that be enough?



There is a longing for family

In Graceling, Katsa did not really pine for the family she had lost. She also had no desire for a family of her own. Bitterblue is different.

Her mother was killed trying to save her from the impending abuse her father had planned for her. She lost her father when Katsa killed him in a desperate act of self-defense. Unlike Katsa, Bitterblue grieves over that which was taken from her. There are touching moments as Bitterblue makes up stories about a mother who works in the castle bakery. Her own imagination creates such a longing that she eventually ends up seeking out the bakery, lingering in the warmth of large ovens and soothing but false memories.

Rather than making her cynical, her loss creates in her a desire for a family of her own. Though at one point she describes marriage as “something complicated and strange that looks good to the rest of the world,” we eventually see a different perspective emerge.

Near the end of the narrative, Bitterblue meets a beautiful, mysterious lady from a distant land who has been married for decades. She notes whimsically,“It’s the first time I’ve heard of two people being together that long, and neither dying, and neither being awful. It makes me happy.”

She even wants babies. After a tryst with Saf (more on that later), she takes a birth control concoction given to her by Katsa, but not so gratefully as Katsa took hers. “The packets of seabane were in a cabinet in her bathing room. She hadn’t imagined she would feel so – lost – the first time she swallowed those herbs down.”

Later, we find that Saf’s Grace enabled him to send her beautiful dreams, “like babies.”

There is a Quest for Truth

Because of the former King’s lying Grace, the kingdom lived beneath a cloud of lies for years. Now the cloud is lifting, but the effect lingers. Bitterblue rules a kingdom of the deceived in which neither she nor those closest to her are immune. At times, the maze of deception and mistrust seems endless. But she never gives up hope that truth can be found in spite of its shifting nature.

“If a situation presented itself in which the right and the wrong seemed clear to her, then she was going to grab on tight. The world presented too few anchors for her to let one pass.”

She discovers her father deprived most of the citizenry of the ability to read and write. Lies require a very carefully maintained stranglehold on truth. He burned unapproved printing presses and censored the books he allowed. In the wake of his death, the presses sprang back up. When Bitterblue meets a printer named Teddy, he reveals something important:
“Teddy…you told me before that you were writing a book of words and a book of truths. I would like to read you book of truths.”
Teddy grinned again. “Truths are dangerous,” he said.
“Then why are you writing them in a book?”
“To catch them between the pages,” said Teddy, “and trap them before they disappear.”
“If they are dangerous, why not let them disappear?”
“Because when truths disappear, they leave behind blank spaces, and that is also dangerous.”
As if simply catching and trapping truth is not hard enough, Bitterblue begins to realize that there is place where the distinction between truth and lies becomes murky. Several brief discussions throughout the book highlight this tension:
“I do not tell you lies.”
“That does not mean you tell me the truth.”

Saf: “You lied to me about everything.”
Bitterblue: “I told you things that were more precious to me than truth.”
Near the end, Bitterblue realizes her Healer is not who she claimed. However, this deception was crucial in bringing resolution to the conflict in the kingdom. “Bitterblue understood then, something about how a person could lie and tell the truth at the same time. Madlen had made something of a fool of her. But Madlen’s care of Bitterblue’s body, and of her heart, had been genuine.”

This is not a shallow book about truth.  Though she stumbles in some areas (more on that later), Ms. Kashore recognizes that truth is powerful, crucial, and dangerous. For these reasons it must be embraced; for these same reasons it must be carefully guarded.

Ms. Kashore seems to take an approach to truth that some Christians have called graded absolutism: One ought to tell the truth, but if there is a clash between the goodness of truth telling and a greater goodness of, say, saving human life, one ought to save a life at the expense of the truth. (Think of the Hebrew Midwives protecting baby boys from slaughter; Rahab protecting the spies in Jericho; or Corrie Ten Boom protecting Jews during the Holocaust).

While it is not shallow, it also is not a perfect book on truth. There is some murkiness in her characters. In general, Ms. Kashore does a good job discussing the importance of embracing truth in a world that sometimes puts us in situations that make its proper use uncertain.

There is a Strong Sense of Right and Wrong

There is such a thing as good and evil. Bad people do evil things, and good people do good things. Leck is a moral monster, and no attempt is made to explain him or his impact away. In a 21st century world in which plenty of people don’t think evil is a category of reality, and plenty more think it is an illusion, a stark, bold message of the impact of evil and the healing power of good ought to be heard.

Ms. Kashore does not offer a source of transcendent ethics or the foundation for individual and social mores.  It's not a theological book, so that's hardly a fault per se.  But as I will note later, this lack of a foundation clouds her judgement on some issues.

Our history is not our destiny 

Bitterblue is not the sum total of her genetics and environment. She does not dance to the music of her DNA or give in to Pavlovian determinsm. Though the book does not make this claim pointedly, something transcendent of biology and sociology is at work. In spite of a legacy that ought to have destroyed her, Bitterblue’s free will and self-determinism lead her toward a future full of hope.


There is no religion; no savior; nothing transcendent at all. The Graces are certainly mysterious, but there is no attempt to connect them to magic, miracles, or natural explanation.

 “Everything else about the novel was significantly harder than the previous books. The complications of the plot provided enormous mental challenges for my little brain. Also, there was nothing enjoyable in writing about the abuses of Leck. Writing the pain of the people he’d hurt was painful for me, and writing the scenes in which he has a presence was horrible. I would finish my work and feel haunted and dirty for the rest of the day. A scene that took you five minutes to read may have taken me a week or more to write. Sometimes I felt trapped with him!”  

Bitterblue brilliantly captures how hard it is to wake up from a world of lies. When someone has been immersed in deception for so long, breaking free from the spell is brutal. What could be worse than living in a world where everyone believes a lie and can’t break free of the influence?

What makes me uncomfortable is that, in spite of a stellar narrative frame, there are elements of this story which confirm a lie that deceives so many of us in real life.

I noted in my review of Graceling that the sex life of Po and Katsa did not ring true with the rest of the book. Both were afraid of being used; both wanted to be accepted unconditionally and be able to love without reservation. To accomplish this, they made a deal that either one of them could walk away from their affair at any time, apparently with no residual effect other than bittersweet memories. They deliberately chose a scenario which actually undermines their own goals. I wrote:
Are they loyal, kind, and self-sacrificial? Yes, and nobly so. But you can't be a true lover and still belong to yourself. Po and Katsa want to bare skin and soul without commitment and consequence; they want to be "one" without undergoing that final,risky, crucial step of servanthood and obligation. That's not a helpful message to send in a society that is reaping a very bleak harvest from irresponsibility and promiscuity.
At one point in Bitterblue, it seemed their non-commited commitment might be shown for what it was. In a tense scene, Katsa calls out Po for not being honest with her. Po responds:
“I should be able to decide my own secrets without having to go into battle with you every single time!”
”But if you’ve changed your mind about a promise, you must tell me. Otherwise, you’re breaking your promise, and I’m left feeling that you’ve lied.”
“Remember the deal, Katsa. If you won’t leave, then I will, and you’ll let me go.”
Remember the deal.” I wonder how many couples in real life could survive the constant threat of “remember the deal” hanging over their heads?   The situation eventually resolves itself. After all, is just a story.

Unfortunately, Ms. Kashore's portrayal of Bitterblue’s affair with Saf is just as problematic. As Bitterblue contemplates her interest in Saf, we read:
 “She knew the mechanics of two people….But understanding want and understanding mechanics did not go far toward elucidating how you could invite someone else to see you, to touch you in that way.”
That’s a great point. But it only takes a brief, breathless dialogue to capture the elucidation:
Saf: “Are you certain you want this? Are you certain you are certain?
Bitterblue: “Yes. Are you?”
 What is the result of their sexual encounter?
“What it did was return her to herself. For Saf reminded her of trust, of her capacity for comfort, her willingness to be loved... She dreamed of her wedding. She couldn’t see who she was marrying, that person never entered the scene, and it didn’t matter.”
Just to clarify what happened here: She gives her virginity to a young man who is a career criminal and vandal, whom she barely knows, who has committed a treasonous act, and who she know will inevitably leave, and it reminds her of trust, comfort, and love? And when she sees her wedding – a dream that Saf sends her – it doesn’t involve him. He makes clear he does not want to make a life with her, and she is fine with this.

Notice how the language is about her. What’s important is that it returned her to herself; it reminded her of trust, her capacity for comfort, her willingness to be loved. The claim is that this shows  she is willing to be loved, but this doesn’t strike me as love at all. This is narcissism. Is that really what sex, trust, comfort and love is about? The self?

In a world of mere biology and mechanics, the awareness of mechanics and the absence of coercion is apparently the only threshold that needs to be met for a sexual encounter to be good, meaningful, and justified. Neither character expresses any real sentiment that perhaps the act transcended the activity.  Life simply goes on. It was just another experience. Perhaps it was just mechanics after all.

That notion strikes me as a legacy of King Lek, a tyrant with a Grace for beautiful Lies, not the hard fought wisdom of Bitterblue, a queen with a longing for Truth.


“Giddon is wealthy,” [Po] said. “I’m exceedingly wealthy, and Raffin is more. There’s no word for what you are, Bitterblue. And the money at your disposal is only a fraction of your power.”
Swallowing, she said, “I don’t believe I quite appreciated it before.”
“Yes,” said Po. “Well. Money does that. It’s one of the privileges of wealth never to have to think about it.”

“[Lek] accidentally filled [the castle] with art that tells the truth."

“They have little reason to exist, except as a monument to the truth of all that’s happened, and because they’re beautiful…I suppose those are reasons to exist.” 

  • At one point, Giddon finds out that people he cared about were apparently killed. After a moving section in which he tries to process what happened, a few short sentences capture the nature of grief in a way that will be familiar to too many of us
“You’re crying.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t help it.”
“It’s comforting to me, “ he said, wiping her tears away with his finders. “I can’t feel anything.”
Bitterblue knew that species of numbness. She also knew what followed, once it passed. She wondered if Giddon realized what was coming, if he had ever know that kind of catastrophic grief.
  • I noted in my review of Graceling that Katsa and the Council were revolting against the corruption of the kingdoms, but in a non-violent way. That has changed. Katsa is a violent revolutionary now. She and her friends “stir up trouble on a serious scale – bribery, coercion, sabotage, organized rebellion – all directed at stopping the worst behavior of the world’s most seriously corrupt kings.” Fighting evil with evil, I suppose.

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