Highly praised at Readercon’s The Year In Novels, this is the strangely improbable fantasy of young queen Bitterblue whose court is filled with ministers who behave very oddly. Everyone, she observes, is a crackpot. Her subjects commit absurd crimes, like swapping a field of watermelons for a a cemetery full of headstones. Her ministers conduct absurd policies. Nothing makes sense, but then Bitterblue has never known anything else.
It’s difficult to know just what to think of this novel. I suspect that Cashore may be trying to remediate Dada here; instead of starting with two old men in the park and ending with Waiting For Godot, we start with Godot and drag the absurd back into the fields we know. There’s an undeveloped subplot about an underground network of storytellers that suggests some theoretical sophistication. If that’s the agenda, it turns out to be tricky because almost none of the characters is much more than an idiosyncrasy, an affectation, or a power.
An alternative interpretation starts from the chronic lie of contemporary YA fiction: almost all female characters (Pullman’s Lyra being the exception) are far younger than they claim. Queen Bitterblue says she is in her late teens, and her ministers are much older, but if this were their fantasy — if we were to understand all of this to be a fantasy of six- and eight-year-olds imagining being grown up, having boyfriends and planning revolutions, it might make sense.
Or perhaps it’s simply a fantasy world that doesn’t quite work, an idea that the writer couldn’t quite pull off.