Pretty much everything here originally appeared at my actual blog: By Singing Light. I particularly focus on upper middle-grade and young adult books. I also enjoy adult genre books, especially speculative fiction.
The Bitter Kingdom is the third and final book in Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy. (That sentence feels tautological but OH WELL.) I actually had semi-serious reservations about the first book and wasn’t sure I would keep reading. But I did, and I’m so glad. The second book won me over, with Elisa’s growing strength of character, with the budding romance, and then that ending–there was no way on earth I wasn’t going to read the third book.
From here out, there will be spoilers for the first two books. Stop reading if you want to avoid them!
So, The Bitter Kingdom begins with Elisa, Storm, Belen, and Mara heading off to the Inviernos’ kingdom to rescue Hector. The first part of the book could be described as a traditional quest/journey adventure. I happen to like these a lot, especially when the people travelling together have complicated relationships. And, oh boy, do they ever.
As I read, I noticed myself really appreciating Elisa’s development as a character. In Girl, I had found her rather frustratingly passive, even in the second half. But now she has become a ruler, and I believed it. She weighs her actions and decisions, trying to decide what is right for her country as well as for herself. She is careful, but at the same time I saw a bedrock of certainty–she also knows what she wants. Over the course of the books, she has truly grown up. I’m trying to think of characters with a similar arc, spread over a similar length of time, and I really can’t remember any.
I also really liked the way Carson shows the hard choices that almost all the characters have to make. Elisa at one point faces a dilemma that reminded me of Eugenides’ in KoA and Conspiracy of Kings–the possible gap between happiness for people they care about, and the well-being of several countries. On a different level, Elisa is constantly facing choices of trust. Again, she is wary, but she also tries to choose trust and mercy. I appreciated this a lot; it adds a level of complexity to the characters and story.
It’s not just Elisa though: there are a wealth of characters here. Hector, Storm (who I ended up really, really liking), Mara and Belen, the Inviernos, and especially Red. It’s a delicate balance between making them real people and letting them take over the book. I thought Carson did a nice job here as well, although the insatiable reader part of me wants to know all about everybody. I especially liked the way Storm is developed, and his relationship with his family.
If I have a lingering nitpick with the series as a whole, it’s the worldbuilding. I love the individual countries and the way they are portrayed, but there are these hints of a science-fictiony past. I really wanted that to just be spelled out–is this a Pern-type deal, or is it fantasy? We got a few more answers in The Bitter Kingdom, but I still wanted more. I’m sure I wouldn’t care as much if worldbuilding weren’t one of my Things, but it is. I did love the feel of Joya d’Arena and Invierno, so it’s not so much the immediate worldbuilding as the history that underlies it.
However, despite that, I really enjoyed this conclusion and will absolutely be reading whatever Rae Carson writes next.
Book source: ARC from ALA
Book information: Greenwillow, 2013; YA