Tackling Trauma and Sexual Assault in Young Adult Fantasy: Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue


SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Sexual Violence and Science Fiction


Tackling Trauma and Sexual Assault in Young Adult Fantasy: Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue

Cheyenne Heckermann

While themes of sexual assault, trauma, and abuse hold a constant presence in pop culture, including Young Adult (YA) fantasy literature, few titles have plots that explore these experiences without romanticizing or sensationalizing these subjects. Meanwhile, trauma and abuse hold great presence in the first three books of Kristin Cashore’s The Graceling Realms series (Graceling [2008], Fire [2009], Bitterblue [2012], Winterkeep [2021], and Spearsparrow [forthcoming, 2022]), though the extent and focus greatly differs from book to book in a contrast between depictions of both healthy relationships and the effects of trauma and abuse. Cashore does not simplify these plots with the issues terminating when King Leck, the overarching villain, is defeated, and continues addressing lasting effects of abuse even long after it has happened. Cashore exhibits the effects and goals of retributive and restorative justice, which “offer a connection to individuals coping with trauma but also create opportunities for other students to understand the effects of sexual abuse” (Charles 2). Because Cashore’s series is sold in the YA genre, the themes are key “because young adults are heavily represented in sexual violence statistics” (Colantonio-Yurko 2).

Vicarious Viciousness

King Leck is the core antagonist of the series with his influence spanning the first three books at various stages of influence: in Graceling as the ruler of a kingdom, in Fire as a child, and posthumously as a memory that haunts many in Bitterblue through the lingering results of abuse, including those committing atrocities on Leck’s behalf. In the Graceling series, people who are Graced have a unique magical ability, and Leck’s Grace is that anything he speaks is viewed unquestioningly as truth, even after his words are passed on to others. For example, this ability includes the belief that “King Leck was well liked by his people and had a great reputation for kindness to children, animals, and all helpless creatures,” and the compulsion to believe this lie carries from victim to victim (Graceling Ch. 2). The reader learns that he appeared in the childless royal family’s city, telling stories until he drew their attention. The king “named the boy his heir . . . even though they knew nothing of his past,” followed by the mysterious deaths of the ruling family, leaving him the monarch with word of his “utterly charming” reputation, granting him greater ease of targeting victims (Graceling Ch. 17).

Leck and his Grace are a fantastical manifestation of an abuser’s ability to charm, control, and manipulate others and fits closely with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of gaslighting: “To manipulate (a person) by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity” (“Gaslight”). Leck’s Grace enables him to quite literally rewrite the narrative to his wishes and impose his own views on his victims, bystanders, and more. He convinces his victims, including his wife, Queen Ashen, and his daughter, Bitterblue,  that their experiences happened differently than they occurred, even in the moment where “[Leck] knows [Ashen is] in pain and is showing [Bitterblue], [he] will take [Ashen’s] pain away and replace it with something else” (Bitterblue Prologue). Leck as an abuser is able to prevent Ashen from alerting Bitterblue that they are in danger and that she is not consenting, to convince them that they are happy, and to prevent them from feeling the need to speak about his abuse.

While Leck’s powers enable him to quiet his victims and erase their ability to fight back, they also allow him to force his victims to commit abuse. Leck enjoys this level of control over others as he exploits some of his victims and continues harming others the way he wishes, beyond his personal sphere of influence. This explains why he makes Thiel, Rood, Runnemood, and Darby—who were originally physicians—his advisors: they heal the wounds they inflict in Leck’s name and experiment on young girls, Leck’s preferred targets (Bitterblue Chs. 14, 35). The victims Leck weaponizes carry the guilt for actions that Leck inflicted on them. Through this vicarious control, he is able to convince an entire kingdom and beyond that he is a positive figure in the world, forcing them to turn away either by mind-control or indirect manipulation from the harm he commits both directly and indirectly.

Aftereffects of Assault: Bitterblue

Bitterblue, the third book in the series, opens with Leck’s abuse of Ashen, Thiel, and Bitterblue while Bitterblue is a child. Bitterblue explains her awareness of his abuse and control over Ashen’s actions and that she herself will “smile, too, because [her] mind is no stronger than Mama’s” to Leck’s manipulations, despite her awareness (Bitterblue Prologue). This is the first glimpse the readers are given of the extent of Leck’s abuse and manipulation of others during Graceling, and the rest of Bitterblue continues exposing the ways his abuses still affect Bitterblue and the kingdom. This includes grooming her to be dangerous and manipulative while depriving the citizens of his kingdom of their original culture and access to information by eliminating access to education and publishers. This is the plot of Bitterblue, exhibiting that Bitterblue herself “[deals] less with overcoming evil than with surviving its aftermath . . . [concerning] itself just as much with the possibilities for healing and justice once its villains are dead,” that even after the abuser can no longer do harm directly, the effects of abuse linger and are not so simple to recover from (Matthews 95).

When Bitterblue was a young child, Ashen taught her to “do arithmetic, because numbers are an anchor” when she is “confused or can’t remember” to remind herself what has happened beneath Leck’s manipulations, as math is concrete and indisputable versus memories and experiences that are under Leck’s influence (Bitterblue Prologue). She retains this habit and exhibits it throughout the book to ground herself and reframe her view of information and situations she learns of—though it is not portrayed as infallible. When Bitterblue is able to reframe her situation to recognize that Ashen and Thiel are in danger and she destroys Leck’s records, which he wrote in another language, Leck threatens to force her to abuse her loved ones as punishment for her behavior. He is able to force her to forget what is happening and threatens to cut off Ashen’s fingers and to force her to actually abuse her loved ones if she continues to destroy his work, weaponizing her love of her mother by convincing Bitterblue that if her mother is hurt, it is Bitterblue’s fault. Leck forces her to tell him she loves him before slapping her and convinces Ashen and Thiel that one of them hurt Bitterblue, not him (Bitterblue Prologue). This further makes Bitterblue believe that her abuser is the person she can trust and love safely instead of those who try to protect her and that her technique of anchoring herself could cause false confidence in her experiences with Leck’s ease of manipulation. He utilizes a similar tactic on Ashen: when Bitterblue resists, Leck implicitly threatens her with sexual assault and experimentation, saying “[Bitterblue] is a lovely age” and intimates that Ashen could give Bitterblue private lessons (Bitterblue Prologue). Bitterblue’s fear of Leck’s capability as a Graceling extends to other Gracelings who may be able to influence peoples’ minds, resulting in caution and distrust, especially of those who claim to be unaware of what their power is.

Nine years later, Bitterblue is queen with her father’s four advisors, still unaware of the full extent of Leck’s influence that remains on her and the kingdom. She manages court cases involving chaos sown by key figures whom Leck empowered during his reign. It is during one case that Bitterblue discovers that, while she declares that the people of a certain section of the city should be taught to read, her judges and advisors take issue. Their issue is setting the precedent that “the queen’s court is available to educate any citizen who comes forward claiming to be illiterate,” alleging that most people can read; that, for those who cannot, it is an active choice; and that this does not impair their ability to work or feed their families when this is indicated otherwise (Bitterblue Ch. 1). Realizing she knows little about her citizens’ experiences, including the rarity of literacy, Bitterblue sneaks out of the castle into pubs where she listens to stories her citizens tell, the only common way information and experiences are conveyed among the majority of the population, allowing her to learn about others’ experiences.

These excursions are how she meets Teddy, a man whose family suffered and burned on account of their family-owned printing press. When Leck was king of the city, “it had been particularly incautious to run a printing shop,” as printing shops had been burned to control the spread of information and limit the access of knowledge to those who could begin new print shops (Bitterblue Ch. 7). Meanwhile, Teddy is trying to create a dictionary to aid literacy in the city alongside a “book of truths” to help people learn and understand more, which aligns with Bitterblue’s goals (Bitterblue Ch. 4). Leck’s influence traveled exclusively by word of mouth: to limit the counter-influence of others’ writing, he removed literacy education so only those in control were able to read and banned printing presses to limit the spread of information he did not want shared.

Much of Bitterblue’s journey is focused on two facets of how information can be consumed to allow herself and her kingdom to learn the truth, heal, and progress. The first is by discovering hidden texts that reveal the history and details of Leck’s reign in truth rather than in his desired image. This involves discovering the translation to Leck’s journals, which were written in a foreign language, as well as the revelation that Ashen’s embroidery functioned as a coded journal, allowing her to evade Leck’s discovery by chronicling her experiences in sewing and to reread her memories to remind herself of the truth. The second focus on information is enabling and empowering others in Bitterblue’s kingdom by fighting to give them education so they may read, communicate, and learn what has happened, in a similar manner to how she does, so they may have a chance to heal and recover what was lost to Leck’s abuse.

Aftereffects of Assault: The Four Advisors

While they function as the antagonists of Bitterblue, Thiel, Runnemood, Rood, and Darby are all victims of Leck’s abuses and mind-control power. The four were originally skilled doctors that Leck made into his advisors to force them to perform experiments on patients, treat those abused so they could endure further torture, and use them as instruments of abuse. Under Leck’s control, they commit much of the rape attributed to the king. They fall into the challenge of male rape myths perpetuating harmful beliefs that men are unaffected by rape:

Male Rape Myths perpetuate the idea that males (boys and men) are unaffected by sexual assault and rape. These myths include the following ideas: that a male cannot be raped, that a male who is raped must have wanted such treatment, that only gay males can be raped, that males are not traumatized by being raped, that a male cannot be raped by a female, that male rape only happens in prison, that same sex rape means that the victim will become homosexual, that homosexual and/or bisexual males deserve rape because they are deviant, that if a victim responds sexually during rape he must of wanted to be raped. (Murphey 40)

The four advisors are victims of male rape myths because they are victims who blame themselves for their actions under Leck’s total influence when they had no power or control in these situations. The advisors distract Bitterblue from the changes she wishes to make so they can continue ruling, hiding the acts they were forced to commit out of the misplaced guilt they feel and concealing their involvement. Records of their capability as doctors were destroyed, and the four continue hiding their medical expertise due to their own trauma, including the disappearance of the medical pamphlets they had written as students (Bitterblue Ch. 15).

Each of the advisors shows signs of struggling with mental health. The earliest mention of Rood and Darby has Bitterblue realizing they are absent from work because “Rood was having one of his nervous episodes, and Darby was drunk,” both recurring reasons for their absences (Bitterblue Ch. 1). Thiel is shown to have “a long, diagonal slice across [his] inner wrist and the base of his hand, neatly stitched,” inflicted via a broken mirror that he tries hiding from Bitterblue despite wincing in pain, and she later sees that a “thin line of blood was seeping through another part of Thiel’s shirt, high on his sleeve,” indicating Thiel’s continued self-harm caused by his trauma (Bitterblue Ch. 14, Ch. 32). Thiel is not the only advisor to do so, and none receive treatment or help.

When Bitterblue unearths the truth, Thiel kills Runnemood to hide their actions. He then explains on a bridge that Leck has forced primarily him and the others to cut and rape children. Thiel says he “felt pleasure when [Leck] told [him] to,” “[feels] it when [he] sees their faces,” and has struggled to heal, insisting that what he had done is not forgivable when his consent was removed (Bitterblue Ch. 38). Thiel makes clear the misplaced guilt that the four advisors felt over actions they were forced to commit, for “being forced to perform sexual acts on another person is also traumatic” (Murphey 49). While Thiel and the advisors clearly view themselves as culpable for the experimentation, rape, and deaths, Bitterblue does not; she continues viewing Leck as at fault, recognizing the extent of control he could inflict both as a close victim of the abuser and as a witness to Leck’s abuse of Thiel. However, when the advisors manipulated the government to conceal the truth out of their sense of guilt, they prevented other victims from healing and themselves from being able to receive absolution and mental health aid.

The Struggle for Restorative Justice

Even though Leck is dead, being free of abuse and the abuser does not terminate the lasting aftereffects of trauma; not dealing with these aftereffects can cause the trauma to resonate. Through this, Cashore tackles “the question that ideologies of restorative justice have the most trouble answering: what do we do with those who harm others? How do we create systemic change that helps a society recover from that kind of large-scale harm?” (Matthews 95–96). After Thiel reveals what Leck had done to them all, he commits suicide in front of Bitterblue. She hears afterward that Darby also committed suicide while in prison, and Rood admits to having contemplated suicide multiple times. Their deaths do not restore or repair peace to their or Leck’s victims nor does it permit the victims to have justice. Once Bitterblue can work on her kingdom unimpeded, one of her first suggestions is creating the “Ministry of Mental Well-being” to help many struggling with mental health, inspired by several of her citizens and her four advisors (Bitterblue Ch. 40). While she exhibits distrust toward them and intends to correct the ongoing issues within her government, she acknowledges “how horrible [it was] to send them to the prisons,” shares that she knew both were suffering but still had a capacity for gentility and morality, and distinctly does not demonize them for their actions (Bitterblue Ch. 40).

The deaths and suicides of the majority of Bitterblue’s advisors lessens the impact of restorative justice because punishment deemed suitable for the crimes could not be enacted. The deaths of Thiel, Runemood, and Darby also mean that their knowledge of what happened is removed, as is the extent of their ability to inform the victims of Leck of the truth to allow them to seek justice. Their actions simultaneously prevent their own punishment for protecting and concealing Leck’s abuse of many, as Bitterblue does not need to enact justice, nor does the community need to come to a decision for reparation or restorations, though the advisors were humanized in Bitterblue while Leck never was in The Graceling Realm series.

However, this can be analogous to abusers who are able to escape or refuse to take part in restorative or retributive actions by choice or by punishment, in which the victims must fully support themselves or each other in choosing what directions are necessary to progress and heal. Such an example of doing so is Bitterblue’s Ministry of Mental Well-being, which Bitterblue herself stands to benefit from on a personal level due to her trauma caused by Leck, retraumatization from recovering records of past events, and experience of the truth and loss of her four advisors.

Conclusion

The first three books of the Graceling Realm Series deal heavily with relationship abuse, sexual assault, and especially abuse of men, acknowledging that many of the events that affected characters’ lives happened in the past but persist in shaping their lives. Their problems were not solved simply because the abuser could no longer act. It fits the demand of Murphey that “we must demand more accurate depictions of the aftermath and trauma that victims experience from sexual assault, even in fantasy” out of social responsibility (Murphey 49). These books’ success in this appears to be a rarity, for several books by popular writers either fail to do so, romanticize these themes, or perpetuate the aforementioned rape myths. Cashore is able to fill this void for retributive and restorative justice and healing long after the trauma has happened in a YA Fantasy series.

WORKS CITED

Cashore, Kristin. Bitterblue. E-book, Dial Books, 2012.

—. Fire. E-book, Dial Books, 2009.

—. Graceling. E-book, Harcourt, 2008.

Charles, Amanda. “Sexual Assault and its Impacts in Young Adult Literature,” Criterion: A Journal of Literary Criticism, vol. 12, no. 2, 2019, pp. 96–103.

Colantonio-Yurko, Kathleen C., Henry Miller, and Jennifer Cheveallier. “‘But She Didn’t Scream’: Teaching About Sexual Assault in Young Adult Literature.” Journal of Language and Literacy Education, vol. 14, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-16.

“Gaslight.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2022. www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/255554

Matthews, Corinne. “Retributive and Restorative Justice in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Trilogy.” South Central Review, vol. 36, no. 2, 2019, pp. 95–113., doi:10.1353/scr.2019.0015.

Murphey, Kathleen. “The Perpetuation of Male Rape Myths in Fantasy Fiction: Anne Rice, Anne Bishop, and E.L. James.” Pennsylvania Literary Journal, vol. 9, no. 3, 2017, pp 40–49.

Cheyenne Heckermann earned a Master of Letters in Fantasy from the University of Glasgow. She won the first Green Blotter departmental award for creative writing from Lebanon Valley College. She has been a review writer for Anomalous Press, juror for the Best Independent Fantasy Press in the British Fantasy Awards for 2020, South-Central Pennsylvania Scholastic Writing Judge, co-editor of From Glasgow to Saturn literary magazine issues 44  and 45, traveler, and fantasy enthusiast. She previously founded Lebanon Valley College’s Poets and Writers series archive, the English Departments’ video archive, and served as a reader for Green Blotter literary magazine. In 2020, she earned an honorable mention in Galaxy Press’s Writers of the Future contest for a currently unpublished short story, “Womb of the Earth.” She was the first head moderator of the Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic Discord, and has since been promoted to server admin.


Published by

sfrarev

SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s