The evil king is dead, his mind control defeated, and the kingdom can finally begin to rebuild. So end many fantasy books; but this is where Bitterblue begins. It's a thoughtful, slow story of a woman and a kingdom recovering from horrific abuse - and, no mistake, this is a story about abuse. Anyone who's dealt with abuse themselves, or supported others through it, will recognise issues in the book like dissociation, self-harm and other effects of trauma. Given that, it's surprising (and a great and I'm sure deliberate achievement of the author) that it remains so playful, hopeful and healing to read.
The relationships between Bitterblue and her friends (old and new) are a delight, and if some of the banter between the characters is hard to credit at times, it's still lovely fun and an important counterpart to the darker themes of the book. This isn't a story of a strong woman brought low by pain; it's about a girl/woman learning to be strong and supported in doing so by good people. The arc of the book is believable and feels authentic, not taking any easy short-cuts through its subject matter.
Bitterblue is a great protagonist - for girls whose choice in role models can often range between "sexy", "hitty" and "clumsy", she's a real change - regal, honest, genuinely capable of growth, geeky (yes, geeky! she's into maths...) and kind. And there's even an appearance near the end from someone else long-term readers of Cashore might recognise! On that note, apparently many of Kristen Cashore's readers who liked her other books didn't like this one - I think they're all great, although Bitterblue is very different. Recommended!