I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
I'm not really a fan of this series. I read Graceling several years ago and remember being mildly impressed with Cashore's technical writing skills, but I felt that overall it lacked emotional power. Don't get me wrong, Cashore deals with some pretty heavy circumstances surrounding her characters, including parental abuse, neglect, and social isolation. The potential for leaving a lasting impression is just diluted by lots of melodramatic hand-wringing, plus phases of existential crises that I honestly can't imagine anyone really experiencing, at least not in the way Cashore depicts them.
One such example is Fire's angst over the inability to have children. Exactly why does this bother her so much? I know that the ability to reproduce is important to many women, and that Cashore is trying to explore the hardships someone like Fire would have to deal with. I just don't think it makes sense, given that Fire lives in a world that does NOT seem to value women solely for reproduction (as some patriarchal societies do), and Cashore still assumes out of pretty much nowhere that a woman will inevitably be perpetually distraught at the thought of not being able to become a mother. No other possible reactions are explored. It's kind of odd to write a female character like Fire in a world where she's given plenty of social freedom, but have her attitudes toward herself resemble what it would be like in a more patriarchal culture.
Which is weird, because I also think the biggest strength of this book is its psychological complexity. The shame that Fire is made to feel for her parentage and her identity was written very realistically, a kind of helpless defense mechanism against the paranoia of a society deeply damaged by her father's abuse of power. Children are not the same people as their parents, but are nonetheless often made to feel as if they are. Fire is constantly trying to set herself apart from her father Cansrel--who did, after all, love and nurture her despite being a monster to everyone else--even as she draws on the strength he gave her as a parent. On the other side of the story is Prince Brigan, whose childhood was turned into one of constant escape and survival as a result of Cansrel's influence with his father. There's one scene when a suspicious Brigan grabs Fire and corners her against a wall, threatening to kill her if she tries to seduce his brother. Normally I'd be super on guard toward this kind of violence from a man towards a woman because YA seems to enjoy painting it as romantic, but for me it served as a powerful reminder of how repercussions can extend over generations, and both Fire and Brigan's traumatic childhoods are given a lot of emotional heft in that scene. Brigan has lost some capacity to trust because he's been forced to fend for himself from a young age, and Fire is sick to death of getting labeled for someone she's not and being (sometimes actually physically) powerless to show people who she really is, and she already has a hard enough time trying to suppress her own insecurities.
The bad part? Moments like that are far and few in between. As the story went on, I realized I simply had to stop holding my breath for any sort of suspense or action because most of the conflict actually takes place in Fire's head. The major turning point in the novel happens as an epiphany, preceded by what's essentially a therapy session where all she does is talk over her feeeeeelings. I mean, ok, write that kind of story if you want, but make it in a more appropriate style and genre whose defining traits don't include the high action and large scope of epic fantasy. The central plot of this book revolves around a freaking war! At least have the big Character Development Moment happen through external circumstances, so we get a balance of plot and character development. Fire's internal tension isn't organic enough, in my opinion, to fully drive the story at its most optimal pace. And it comes at the expense of the secondary characters too, to have everyone around Fire constantly cajoling, comforting, begging, or helping her rather than being developed on their own as individuals.
Cashore seems to have created an interesting world. Granted, it isn't entirely original, but I think the scope of it is nicely suggested, even if Cashore's tendency to describe nearly every second of Fire's journeys everywhere in the kingdom falls into the common mistake of over-description. The part near the end with the future King Leck is a nice nod to the world of Graceling, although it's hard to appreciate it if you haven't already read Graceling. What I don't like about Cashore's world-building is that it's far too underdeveloped, because of the constant focus on the main character's emotional issues instead of trying to show how those emotional issues happen as a result of the people and situations around her. It's not consistently underdeveloped, there are times when the culture of the world really comes through in the characters like in the Brigan/Fire scene mentioned above, but sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if Cashore just left the setting alone instead of throwing in descriptions here and there. The False Prince draws the fictional world in fairly vague strokes in order to focus more on the interpersonal conflicts between the characters, to great (and consistent) dramatic effect. This book felt more as if it was stretched thin in some places and awkwardly bulked up in others, as if Cashore wanted a vivid setting one moment, then a more simple background the next.
Altogether, this book was...I guess a sort of "meh" experience. I see Cashore as an experimental writer, and I admire her attempts to let her characters and her story stand on their own, even with the possibility of audience backlash (which she has indeed received). I personally didn't find the loose sexual conventions of the story nearly as insulting as many readers did--I think it's sort of fascinating to have a world where casual, non-marital sex doesn't carry social stigma, and I don't understand why people interpret this as an endorsement on Cashore's part of people sleeping with each other left and right. Where this experiment fails is in character depth. Cashore doesn't explain very well why her characters keep sleeping around, there aren't really any sympathetic motivations. It also trivializes the characters' emotional lives to treat them as a source of drama rather than real, living, breathing people who might be more understandable to us if only we were given their side of the story.
And that pretty much summarizes my experience with this book as a whole. It's not deep enough. The drama needs to mean something. The existential crises of the main character need to be better connected with the world around her. We need more insight into how the setting works, how the people work. Either that, or pick up the speed and turn this into a fast-paced thriller or something of the sort. By the way, the story structure also needs work. I'm not even sure exactly what the climax is--the whole thing with Leck, or the rather underwhelming battle scene that is abruptly cut off and skipped to the aftermath for no reason? *shrug* So, add tone and atmosphere to the list of Things This Book Could Do Better On.
Anyway, after this I really have little to no interest in Bitterblue, despite the temptation of the lovely cover. Off now to dig through more worthwhile stories.