Can Bitterblue’s Riddle Be Solved?

We have 46 days until the next installment of the Graceling Realm series is finally published, and to pass the time, I have a few Cashore-related posts in mind to hold us over. Over the course of two months, I read all three books, and for the first time, it struck me how little and how much we know about the series’ overarching antagonist, King Leck. And I realized… maybe something could be extrapolated from his known timeline to determine those missing years. Our first three posts were top ten moments in each of the three books: Fire, Graceling, and Bitterblue. If you want some happier content, I’d probably start there.

I do want to stress that King Leck was an abusive, horrific human being, and as is the case in Bitterblue, not everyone will want to know Leck’s secrets. Consider this a general, blanket trigger warning. This is a deep dive like they do in those crime investigation podcasts and the like. So if you’re not interested in that kind of thing, you might want to take a pass on this post.

And, because I’m going to be investigating everything related to Leck, let me also take this opportunity to say warning: spoilers abound.

The entire third novel involves Bitterblue running around her city, trying to uncover the truth of King Leck’s reign, hoping that such knowledge will help her figure out how to heal her kingdom properly. The problem, however, comes in the nature of Leck’s grace. Because his power fogs the mind, the characters can’t always rely on their own memory. And, whatever hope Bitterblue might’ve had at uncovering the truth in Leck’s journals died in the fire that Thiel started to hide the full extent of Leck’s crimes.

But we have something Bitterblue doesn’t: we know Leck as a boy from Fire, and we have some rumors about how Leck began his reign from Graceling. All that remains is to connect the dots.

Sadistic but Sane: Leck in Fire

The Leck we see in Bitterblue has lost his mind and is a sharp contrast to the intelligent boy we are introduced to in Fire. Still, Fire provides the most first-hand experience in all three books, and likewise offers a starting point for his character’s downward arc into madness.

So, we start off with Fire‘s prologue. Leck was born Immiker, learned how to talk by a very young age, and thus how to use his Grace. Even in the prologue, we see he does not care for anything. He does not care about his father, pushing him through the mountains until the man dies from exhaustion. Several years later, he remains much the same when he comes to court and interacts with Fire. He’s creepy, and she first meets him as he’s hurting a small animal for fun. “Is it sick? To want to be in control?” (Fire 270). It establishes his sadistic tendencies, his need for control, but that need is nowhere near as strong as it will later present itself to be.

But it’s not until later that we really get to see his plans for the future, for Fire and for the Dells. Although Leck admits the Dellians have a stronger mind than those from the Seven Kingdoms (thanks in large part to their monster population), he’s fascinated by the potential–“so many advances in medicine, and engineering, and art” (Fire 381). He wants to be in control of everything. “…don’t imagine it contents me to control Cutter’s vulgar smuggling operation…It’s King’s City I want, with its glass ceilings and its hospitals and its beautiful bridges all lit up at night. It’s the king I want, whoever that may be at the other side of the war” (Fire 382).

He’s not rash at this point, though. He’s content to play the long game, to maneuver the different contenders for the throne against each other so that when it’s all said and done, they destroy each other and leave Leck in position to take control of whichever king wins. He doesn’t want to rule directly; he wants to be a puppet-master like Cansrel had effectively been.

Then Fire’s horse kicks him in the face, destroying an eye and sending him sprawling straight into a crevice.

From Commoner to King: His Graceling Origin Story

Leck, of course, finds himself back in the Seven Kingdoms. In Graceling, Po shares with Katsa the troubling origin story of King Leck of Monsea. At age thirteen, a boy arrives in court, missing an eye, “begging and telling stories in return for food and money.” According to the stories, it’s the servants that first take him in, until the king and queen hear of him and bring him before them. Leck “charmed them completely…They treated him like a noble boy; he was educated, and taught to fight and ride… And when the boy was sixteen and the king and queen still didn’t have a child of their own, the king…named the boy his heir.” (Graceling 198)

It strikes me as odd, that he would find his way in the capital of Monsea, that he would beg in the presence of servants. That for three years he would live a princely life. It seems smaller than what Leck would accept. One must assume, based on how difficult the passage to the Dells had been, that Leck might’ve barely survived the return journey. Brought low by his injury, struggling to get by, one would assume that his first instinct would be to take control over whatever he can take control of.

Supposedly, a week after Leck was named heir to Monsea, “…the king and queen died of a sudden sickness. And their two closest advisors fell into despair and threw themselves into the river” (Graceling 199). Now this sounds more like the Leck we know, using his Grace to consolidate power.

The question is not whether or not the story is true, of course. Leck can spread whatever lies he wishes about how he came into power, and for all we know, he bee-lined straight for the capital, killed the king and queen, and pretended that he had more history than he did. But I do think there has to be some truth to the origin story. For one thing, Leck was originally content to rule from the sidelines, and it makes sense that perhaps he spent some years living like a prince, directing the king and queen on policies with his Grace, and getting a taste for ruling.

I expect in his vanity, Leck’s slow start at the Monsean court might be a result of his missing eye. Once he accepts the loss, he starts working towards controlling the king and queen, commanding the servants to set up some introductions. From there, it would be easy, so easy, for him to ensnare them. Perhaps after three years of directing the king of Monsea, he grew tired of what little progress he was making and decided it was time to take matters into his own hands.

The Secrets in Leck’s Journals and Ashen’s Embroidery: Late Leck’s Reign, Bitterblue

From his origin story to what information we get in Bitterblue, there’s a big blank spot of nothing. We don’t know how he got to this point. We only know where it began, and where it ended. We learn that many Monsean traditions–such as the solstice and equinox celebrations, and the burning traditions–have been suppressed. And we see many Dellian influences on Bitterblue City and in the horrors of Leck’s deeds. The dead are now burned, the river has been renamed the River Dell, and a bridge was dubbed Monster Bridge.

And Bitterblue’s advisors. Bitterblue learns from Death that “forty-some years ago, before Leck came to power, [her] advisors were Thiel, Darby, Runnemood, and Rood were brilliant young healers” (Bitterblue 190). And, of course, the four of them were Leck’s advisors before they were Bitterblue’s, chosen for their experience. So that does imply, to some degree, that Leck is still obsessed with the medical advancements he left behind in the Dells, even at the start of his reign.

But his journals, the few that Bitterblue will get to read, imply that his madness and his insistent obsession, is something a little more recent. As seen in a journal from one of the last years of his reign, he says “I cannot get it right. I cannot get it perfect, and I hate my own attempts… My hospital gives me a headache. There are too many people and I tire of deciding what they should think and feel and do” (Bitterblue 437-8). Bitterblue’s castle is full of artwork that Leck “commissioned,” art that he tried to dictate.

If I could be allowed my art, then I would not have these headaches that feel as if my head is splitting open. All I want is to surround myself with the beautiful things that I have lost, but my artists won’t be controlled like the others. I tell them what they want to do and half of them lose their talent completely, hand me work that is garbage, and stand there proud and empty, certain they’ve produced a masterpiece. The other half cannot work at all and go mad, becoming useless to me. And then there are those very few, those one, those two who do the literal thing of what I instruct, but imbue it with…some terrible truth… Their work mocks my smallness

Bitterblue 432-3

From this we see that Leck has really begun to spiral into madness. A possible explanation is that he tried to be a ruler, to mold the kingdom into what he thought it could be, full of medical advancements and beautiful things. But, of course, even a Grace as powerful as his can only work so far. Those furthest from his influence are able to fight off his Grace that much easier, and cause problems for him. He began, one must assume, on the easy things. He brought healers on as his advisors so he might pursue the medical advances of the Dells. He changed the name of the river and built bridges that would remind him of its capital. Small victories that would spit in his face as more and more losses and failures pile on.

Possible Tipping Point: Middle of Leck’s Reign, Bitterblue

What is most interesting is how long he ruled Monsea alone. In Bitterblue‘s prologue, we learn that “fifty is [Leck’s] age and thirty-two is [Queen Ashen’s]. They’ve been married for fourteen years and [Bitterblue] is nine and a half” (Bitterblue 3). If Leck became king of Monea at age 16, then he ruled alone for two decades before sailing to Lienid to steal Ashen away as his wife. This suggests that, although one must assume that the beginning of his reign was as spotty as its end, that Monsea was well enough off that Leck could pretend things were going well for those two decades.

Perhaps things were going excessively well, and he decided it was time to start planning for the future. Or, perhaps he was struggling with the beginnings of his mind-reader rebellions, with his ongoing art and hospital failures, with people too strong-minded and people too weak-minded. Perhaps he thought that having a wife and children would make things better. Obviously, their marriage is childless for about five years, and Leck’s interactions with Bellamew result in another child two years later, but it was happenstance, accident. Whether Bitterblue has other secret siblings, or if perhaps Leck killed the others and it was Hava’s being able to hide that saved her life, there isn’t much textual evidence to say.

Either way, Leck kills Bellamew shortly before Ashen and Bitterblue escape and Katsa kills Leck in Lienid. And, of course, Bellamew’s death comes at the heels of many other artist’s deaths. We must assume that the last few years of his reign were particularly frustrating, and that he was killing artists all over the place for their failures. But I can’t see his belated marriage to Ashen as just some random event, not after ruling for so long on his own. More likely, it’s the latter scenario, his attempts to gain control over his kingdom before he lost it completely. And, fortunately for the overall health of the kingdom, the fact is that he failed his mission utterly. Much of Bitterblue City is falling apart, few people can read (let alone do art), and always, there are those who take advantage of chaos, making the lives of others even more miserable. You cannot have a happy kingdom under those parameters.

The Missing Years

Ultimately, without those journals, there is no way to know what happened in those thirty-odd years. Those that lived during that time were, for the most part, either so weak-minded that they cannot trust their own memories or they were so strong-minded that they died by Leck’s hand. But, I think it’s safe to say that Leck’s reign started off with few frustrations, that he built art and attempted to advance medicine in his own messed up way. His successes outnumbered his failures. As people continued to fight his influences, however, he sought solace in the one thing he could claim as his own: a wife, and an heir that would help solidify his place on Monsea’s throne.

But, of course, Monsea is not self-sufficient. We know that Bitterblue was not a destitute queen, but that does not mean Monsea didn’t struggle under Leck’s ministrations. He placed value on art and on medical advancements to determine the success or failure of his overall reign, and even those, he could not manage. As his artists failed him constantly, as he made little to no progress in his “hospitals,” he grew angry, inconsolable. Obsessive. He started killing off his artists, and set his sights on Bitterblue. One can assume he planned to go back to his roots when she came of age, ruling from the sidelines now that he had molded the “perfect queen” that would do whatever he said.

He never got there, of course. Bitterblue fled, and he intercepted them at Lienid, where Katsa killed him to protect Po’s secret. Still, Leck’s influences kept Monsea under its fog for another eight years, until Bitterblue went into a story room one night and began her quest for the truth. One must wonder if we have left his story behind with Bitterblue, or if snippets of his history might come to light in Winterkeep. Perhaps, like Bitterblue, we will never know the full extent. But, like Bitterblue, it’s hard not wonder.

If you’re liking all this Kristin Cashore content, never fear! I have another post planned for next month, where I reread Jane, Unlimited for the first time. Then, hopefully, Winterkeep’s will be not long after that. 🙂


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