One of the most popular and well-received fantasy series in YA must be the Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore. The series consists, thus far, of three books – Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue. Many have praised these books for their feminist take on fantasy, though the first book in the series, Graceling, received criticism from disability communities for its portrayal of blindness.
This review is mostly going to focus on Bitterblue, the sequel to Graceling (the second book, Fire, is a companion rather than a sequel), but in order to examine Bitterblue, it’s necessary to take the book in the context of both Graceling and Cashore’s response to criticism. With that in mind, this review will contain some pretty major spoilers for Graceling, though the big plot points of Bitterblue will remain unspoiled.
Graceling is set in a fantasy realm made up of seven kingdoms. In this world, there are some that are Graced – born with differently colored eyes and a variety of heightened skills and abilities that set them apart from others. Graces can range from fighting to healing to singing. Some Graces are more useful than others. Some are more feared than others. And some Gracelings aren’t even quite sure what their Grace is.
In the first book we are introduced to Katsa, a Graced warrior, and Po, another Graceling whose skill seems to be fighting. However, later in the book, it is revealed that Po (the love interest) has been deceptive about his Grace. In reality, Po has the ability to sense the movements of objects and people around him. Not just movements, but also thoughts, though only if the thoughts are about or directed at himself. This of course makes him a very gifted fighter, which is why everyone believes his Grace is fighting.
The reason for Po’s deception becomes important later in the book. Mind-readers are hated and distrusted by most in the seven kingdoms, and are often used as spies by their kings. Po, the son of a king who is kind though ambitious, was told by his mother and grandfather never to reveal his true Grace. So while Katsa does figure it out, it’s kept secret from others.
This deception becomes much more complicated, however, near the end of Graceling when Po goes blind due to a head injury. At first he struggles to adapt and feels quite depressed, though he quickly learns how to repurpose his Grace so that his sensory abilities become even stronger. With Katsa’s help, he also learns how to look at people as if he’s really seeing them, rather than just sensing their location.
This is, of course, a very flawed portrayal of blindness because it plays into the trope of magical abilities negating the disability. In this trope, which is is quite common in fantasy and sci-fi, blind characters cannot see with their eyes, but their superpowers or abilities allow them to “sense” everything anyway, completely erasing the reality of the disability and sending the unintentional message that disabled people cannot actually be heroes with their disability intact. Thus, Po’s ability to “see” thanks to his Grace is a frustrating twist in a book applauded by many as progressive.
This, however, is where the story gets interesting, and where we can begin to talk about Bitterblue.
In the acknowledgments of Bitterblue, Cashore admitted to the flaws in Po’s portrayal in Graceling and thanked those who brought the issue to her attention. While on tour, she spoke frequently about her regret at how she had handled Po’s blindness and about her attempts to correct the issue – as much as she could – in Bitterblue. On her blog, she said this:
… I also wish I’d been less ignorant about disability politics when I was writing Graceling. When I realized, late in the writing of Bitterblue, that I had disabled Po, then “magically cured” him in a way that suggested, as book after book after book does, that a character can’t be both disabled and whole — that his story can’t continue happily until he’s cured — when I realized what I’d done, I tried to change a few things to make his blindness more real, and his cure less magical. For example, in Bitterblue, he can’t read words on paper and needs assistive devices to write, and when he’s ill, his Grace warps so that he no longer has a clear sense of his surroundings. But the fact remains that I’m stuck with the powers I gave him in Graceling, so the best I can do is work really hard to make him as real as I can whenever he appears, think hard about my future representations of him, and try to be more thoughtful about this issue with new characters.
As a legally blind person who had enjoyed Graceling – despite being frustrated by this disability trope – I was intrigued and impressed with Cashore’s response. It was one of the first times I’d seen an author acknowledge, apologize for, and take steps to correct poor representation. It made me even more eager to read Bitterblue than I already had been.
It’s important to go into Bitterblue with context, because while Cashore did take steps to make Po’s Grace less of a magical cure, she also had to work within the world she’d already established. Thus, there wasn’t much of a chance for Po to be a “good” representation of blindness. However, there was space to make his portrayal less problematic, and Cashore’s choices in this regard are quite interesting and bring up what I thought were intriguing metaphors for passing and visual impairment in the blind community.
In Bitterblue, which is set several years after Graceling, we meet Queen Bitterblue, Po’s cousin and the daughter of the (now-dead) villainous King Leck. As a child, Bitterblue was rescued by Katsa and Po after the death of her mother. As an adult, she is still quite close to them. She is also one of the few people who is aware of Po’s blindness and the true nature of his Grace.
We quickly learn of a few limitations that Po’s Grace does not compensate for. He cannot read, and writing is very difficult. He also can’t see color, and the sun and moon are too far for him to sense. These are small limitations that Po has mostly been able to hide, as revealing his blindness would reveal his true Grace. This, coupled with Po’s efforts to look at people as if he was actually looking at them, made me think a lot about “passing.”
I used to try to “pass.” I’m legally blind, and there was a time in which I was not open about this for fear of being seen differently. I hid my cane in public, and for book signings I memorized long sections of my own work, turning the pages in the right spots, so as to appear as though I was “reading.” I would also angst about how well I was meeting people’s eyes or about looking into cameras when photos were being taken.
While I don’t attempt this anymore (and also don’t encourage it – I got myself into many potentially dangerous situations by not using my cane back then), I still find myself falling into similar patterns, trying to behave “like a sighted person.” It’s internalized ableism I’m still trying to work through. And because of this, I somewhat related to Po in the moments when he had to take efforts to conceal his blindness.
These new limitations placed on Po also brought to mind visual impairment vs. complete blindness. Like most things, blindness is a spectrum. Approximately 90% of legally blind people do have some remaining vision. This often creates confusion and frustration for people around them.
At one point in Bitterblue, after making a big discovery involving wall hangings, Bitterblue is speaking with a friend and mentions her frustration that Po did not discover this information sooner. The friend points out that Po cannot see color (colors being a key element in this discovery), and Bitterblue suddenly feels badly, admitting that she forgets sometimes because of how well Po has adapted with his Grace.
This conversation rang very true to me. Back when I was attempting to “pass,” even those closest to me, who knew I was blind, would often find themselves frustrated when I didn’t notice some visual cue, only to then remember that I was legally blind. I’ve often been told, “I forget that you can’t see,” even now, with my ever-present guide dog at my side. People expect either full sight or complete blindness, and when you’re visually impaired, even close friends can get confused.
Although Po is completely blind, his Grace compensates for many things, making him, in essence, visually impaired. It’s not the cleanest metaphor, but if you read him that way, it does make elements of his character more realistic and interesting. And it’s definitely a far more positive portrayal of disability than in Graceling, where his limitations (other than having to learn how to “look” at people) were not acknowledged.
Is Po a character I would recommend as a positive portrayal of blindness? No. Especially not of total blindness. Unfortunately, the rules established in Graceling prevent this. However, I do think Cashore’s response and attempts to work within the rules she’d established were admirable and created a much more interesting and complex portrayal of visual impairment.
Bitterblue is a book I would recommend less for its portrayal of disability and more for its evidence of how an author can attempt to improve an already established character that has previously been “magically cured.”