Golden crown tangled
under the Monster Bridge, a
reef of bones & ice.
I guess they say this is part of the Graceling Realm, but more specifically, this is a direct sequel to Graceling itself. That sentence should probably read "...this is the much anticipated sequel," since it has been in the works for a long time, relatively speaking. The titular Bitterblue is the young queen of a kingdom-- the Seven Kingdoms, you'll remember, had refreshingly honest names like Wester, Middluns & Estill. Bitterblue is Queen of Monsea, the daughter of the monstrous tyrant King Leck. The eponymous Gracelings are like the X-men, though the prism of YA fantasy; they have extraordinary supernatural talents. Leck's was domination; he could simply make you believe whatever he wanted you to believe...& what he wanted you to believe was that everything was fine, even as he was cutting into your flesh. Everyone in the kingdom fell under his spell at some point, & those closest to him were kept enthralled at almost all times, leaving them ruined, broken. Bitterblue escaped, & when Leck finally died, was put on the throne. Now she's attempting to unravel the skein of mysteries, lies, false memories, ciphers & conspiracies that are Leck's legacy. The castle itself is a map of something, something strange, something that Bitterblue can't quite figure out-- the strange statues of creatures caught in metamorphosis, the wall hangings with improbably coloured beasts, the meticulously maintained topiary in strange shapes, the labyrinths, the locked rooms, the censored library. Even the city itself is a riddle incarnate, with strange bridges to nowhere & mysterious gangs fighting for enigmatic causes. The story is in Leck's shadow, because the entire nation is haunted by his memory...or the Leck-shaped holes in their memory.
I frankly didn't need to see Katsa & Po in this story at all. This is set-- what, a decade later than their story? The story doesn't over rely on Katsa, thank goodness, but Po is a big presence, & I think he might sort of cast too long of a shadow? It does make sense, as he is Bitterblue's uncle, & he has interesting abilities, so I'm not too critical of it. Plus, the author acknowledges that she screwed up by making Po blind & then giving him a magical "cure," which is an all too common trope that is pretty offensive to people with disabilities. That counts for something & she takes care to portray the downfalls of being blind while having Daredevil's super-senses, like not being able to read or distinguish colour. It helps. My biggest complaint is that...well, it isn't as complicated or pretentious as I would have liked. It focuses on codes & deception so much that I wanted to see intertextual shenanigans; I wanted there to be dense sections of code that needed to be deciphered, or at least like, a bunch of encoded footnotes & puzzles. Still, that is more than made up for by Ian Schoenherr's illustrations bookending the chapters & in the appendix at the back. In particular Bellamew's statue of a young Bitterblue turning into a castle; that was great, as are the maps & Leck's crazy bridges. My theory about Leck was partially right, partially wrong, as it turns out. Eventually, toward the end of the story, Fire shows up as an old woman, prefigured by some tapestries, & shakes up the power dynamics of the Seven Kingdoms. I won't say too much more about the actual plot of the book, but I enjoyed it.