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A Reader of Fictions: Audiobook Review: The Bitter Kingdom

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Audiobook Review: The Bitter Kingdom

The Bitter Kingdom
Fire and Thorns, Book 3

Author: Rae Carson
Narrators: Jennifer Ikeda & Luis Moreno
Duration: 12 hrs, 57 mins
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Read: August 27-September 1, 2013
Source: Digital copy from publisher

Description from Goodreads:
The champion must not waver.
The champion must not fear.
The gate of darkness closes.

Elisa is a fugitive.

Her enemies have stolen the man she loves, and they await her at the gate of darkness. Her country is on the brink of civil war, with her own soldiers ordered to kill her on sight.

Her Royal Majesty, Queen Lucero-Elisa née Riqueza de Vega, bearer of the Godstone, will lead her three loyal companions deep into the enemy's kingdom, a land of ice and snow and brutal magic, to rescue Hector and win back her throne. Her power grows with every step, and the shocking secrets she will uncover on this, her final journey, could change the course of history.

But that is not all. She has a larger destiny. She must become the champion the world has been waiting for.

Even of those who hate her most.

Previous Books in Series:
1: The Girl of Fire and Thorns
2: The Crown of Embers

My relationship with Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns series is a complicated one, and probably always will be. When I first read The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I did not like it. As time passed and endless praise rolled in, I felt like maybe I'd not given the book a fair shot, so I tried again, this time with the audiobook. Why reread a book I didn't like? Because tastes can change. In this case, though, they really didn't. However, I still went ahead with the audiobook version of the series, which I'm sure would be looked at askance by many. Why would a person read the sequel to a book they've disliked twice? Because you never know. This time my persistence paid off, and I found myself wholly wrapped up in The Crown of Embers. Though I still have some rather large reservations about books two and three in the series, I also loved them in some ways. Make of that what you will.

Though I do love romance in books, it's not often what makes a book for me. Generally, I would say I love the characters first and the romance between them second. In the Fire and Thorns series, the romance comes first. The arc of this relationship gets a full five star fanfare of cellos and unicorn whinnies, okay? (I'm just going to assume that would sound awesome. Roll with it, yo.) Hector and Elisa go from having no real romantic attachment in book one (note that this is the book I didn't like), but with a nice solid foundation of respect and mutual admiration, to love and impending marriage in The Bitter Kingdom. They do so slowly and with quite a bit of swoon.

The ending scenes of this book almost made me happy cry, something I do much more easily than sad cry. Attending weddings of friends, I find a lot of the trappings of them quite sexist and unappealing. Carson's series is, I think, at its most beautiful and woman power-y right there at the end in a traditionally patriarchy-dominated ceremony. Hector loves that Elisa is powerful, and is man enough not to feel challenged by that, and just so much yes to all of that.

One of the key selling points of Fire and Thorns is Elisa's weight. There aren't many novels about non-skinny heroines, and even less so in the fantasy genre. Now, Elisa does lose a good deal of weight over the course of book one while tramping about in the desert. This did concern me a bit, especially since the romantic interest in her really kicks up at that juncture. However, now that it's done, I'm really happy with the portrayal of weight in the series. Elisa never gets thin or reaches her society's standard of beauty, which is slim like our society currently holds up as ideal. Elisa will always be curvy or even overweight. Hector finds her very sexually attractive, and that's fantastic. What really makes the portrayal of Elisa's weight issues so powerful, though, is that Elisa herself comes to love her own body and to stop yearning to be someone else with a different body type. The reason people are beautiful is their uniqueness, and Elisa's road to self-love has been long and bumpy, but she made it and I think I finally like her as well.

The Bitter Kingdom also spends much less time on the religion elements which made me so batty in book one. While I know this worked for some, I found the fact that it was basically relabeled Christianity both lazy and preachy. By The Bitter Kingdom, Elisa has no real idea what the deal is with god. She still prays and believes somewhat, but she's questioning. She no longer has that certainty that her way is right and is really seeking knowledge. Where before the series came off as dealing with religion, The Bitter Kingdom takes a much more theological angle, which I love. Fun fact: I minored in theology.

So far as the cast goes, this is one of those rare books where I feel things but don't really identify with the heroine. Though I do have some commonalities with Elisa, we have never been able to bond. I respect her now and admire her, but we would never be best friends (maybe because I'm plotting her death to steal Hector? - kidding...mostly). Hector is everything fabulous, and other YA love interests should learn from him. He walks the line between protective and trusting perfectly. There's a place for protecting your lady and a time to step back and let her get shit done, and he knows when to do which thing. My favorite characters are Mara and Belen, and they are both just the cutest. The Bitter Kingdom gave me a couple of new ships, and I actually would really like another book set in this world about one of them. *coughs* (Who would have thought, right?) I'm a little disappointed that Rosario basically didn't show up in this book, since the little prince is kind of important, but oh well. (I'm asking for more moppet? What has this book done to me and my values?) Oh also, Red is an incredibly adorable moppet as well, and, yeah, she's the best, even if her name is straight up My Little Pony.

The plot of The Bitter Kingdom meanders a little bit. There's a lot of journeying to one place and then hearing about a thing and needing to go somewhere else and OH HEY a plot point. It's not a huge issue, but I also wasn't really all that concerned about the plot overall. You basically know what the endgame is and ride that train all the way around the theme park until it gets to the final stop. There was one part that was straight out of Lord of the Rings basically, which was a little bit ridiculous to me, but, again, not a major problem for me either. Carson also took things a bit easily, with Lord of the Rings being a good comparison actually. The stakes are always really high, but she's not merciless to her characters, which I know some people love but I like knowing that anything could happen at any time.

Only one aspect of The Bitter Kingdom seriously irked me. To explain it, I will have to delve into SPOILERS in this section, so stop here if you do not want to know, mmkay? In The Bitter Kingdom, Carson throws in this huge world building twist, but doesn't really address it. She just throws it out there like it's no big deal and I'm like WHUT. Anyway, Elisa and company learn that if an Invierno mates with a Joyan, their offspring will be unable to reproduce. These offspring are referred to as mules.

Now, I seriously suck at science, but this immediately set off serious warning bells, because the reason mules, the product of horse and donkey sex, cannot reproduce is because they come from two disparate, if similar, species. Considering all of the racial themes in the series, this made me really uncomfortable, especially since the word mulatto, came from the same root word of mule. Now, it turns out the Joyans actually came to the planet and colonized it much like the Europeans came into the Americas, so they are actually not the same creatures, but I still feel like this is some really messy, sensitive subject matter to throw into book three. I especially do not feel like enough world building was put into this, since apparently one or the other of them is not human but alien. This begs so many questions. It's a pretty cool twist, but leaves me feeling hyper-curious and not entirely satisfied with the world building.

The audiobook versions of this series have been marvelous. Jennifer Ikeda does a fabulous job with the different characters all the way through. I'm not as thrilled with the casting of Hector, who sounds a bit too much like Kevin Spacey for any guy as sexy and hispanic as Hector is in my head. Still, he doesn't do a bad job. I'm also not entirely sure Hector's POV was necessary in The Bitter Kingdom, but whatever.

Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns series is one that I do think is well worth reading, even if it has always been varying degrees of problematic for me personally. The series gets better as it goes along, and features one of the best and healthiest romantic relationships.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Blogger meg said...

Yay! I'm glad you liked this book! I agree that the series wasn't my favorite at first. If I hadn't been gifted books 1 and 2 at the same time, I might not have continued but I'm glad I did b/c TBK was such a payoff (and, obviously, b/c then there was Hector who puts pretty much every other male lead to shame.)

It's an interesting point you bring up in your spoilery section (not saying in case anyone skipped down to the comments). I sort of breezed right past that while I was reading, but you're right it definitely raises some really huge and interesting questions that I am now in need of answers for.

September 3, 2013 at 9:54 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

Woo! So it's not just me, then. So many people loved the first book and I tried to SO HARD, but I just cannot like it. The next two, though, are quite lovable, even if there's always something fist-shake inducing.

But, seriously, how can she just put that out there and leave it? I'm like BUT RAE WHAT?

September 3, 2013 at 9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't read through your whole review because this is one series I really do intend to read, so I don't want to spoil anything for myself. I never knew an audiobook would make so much of a different, though, and I admire your persistence. If that was me, I wouldn't have bothered giving the book another go (unless it's Code Name Verity). Glad this worked out for you, Christina!

September 3, 2013 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I didn't read your review because I do eventually want to read this series. I see that you gave it quite a high rating though, which makes me excited!!

September 3, 2013 at 2:33 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


See, I actually LOVED the crazy twist. From my point of view, it changes everything. The Inviernos are the ones with the crazy powers, which more than likely makes them the aliens on a foreign planet. The Joyans are the ones who came with their ships but no powers, which means they're probably exploring humans. AND THE WHOLE THING IS A FANTASY SET INSIDE A SCI-FI! My mind was blown and I died brainless but happy.

September 3, 2013 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

You minored in theology? Don't kill me for bringing this up again but you MIGHT like Forty Days then--all the religion stuff is done in a questioning manner, and especially in the 2nd installment, I'm dealing with the nature of belief and why people choose to believe certain things.

I actually meant to read book 1 of this series when I was starting Forty Days, b/c I was trying to read any YA I could find with some sort of religious angle, to figure out how I'd handle it. But I never got around to it. So now it's not really at the top of my list but I would like to read it someday...

September 4, 2013 at 9:05 PM  
Blogger GillyB said...


I considered ending my comment there, but I suppose I should say things... such as Red is the awesomest, your review is great, I didn't mind the squicky "mule" thing as a world-building element, Hector Hector Hector, and I LOVE how this series improved and came to rely less on religion. And that Elisa totally came into her own (you even SORTA started to like her! :D).

September 5, 2013 at 4:45 PM  
Blogger The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

I loved the LOTR part-I assume it was an intentional reference and not just Carson unsure of where to take the journey because it was so fricking obvious.

One of my favorite parts was Elisa's purpose-I keep hoping for another series in this world, set later that shows the full repercussions of her purpose.

September 8, 2013 at 8:01 PM  

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