The creature didn’t know what they meant. […] I’m not called Keeper, she said. I don’t have a name. You’re confusing me with someone else.
Help us! they cried. What’s wrong with you? You’re the hero of Winterkeep! You’re supposed to protect us!
Deciding to pretend she couldn’t hear them, she sank down into the blackness of the ocean floor.Winterkeep, p. 8
Some authors, if they started their book from the point of view of an antisocial giant squid, might leave me utterly confused at their bizarre attempts at originality. Some might leave me wondering what sort of strange beginning to a fantasy novel this was supposed to be. And then there’s Kristin Cashore, who had me ensnared from the very first line. Because of course you’re supposed to start a story this way. How could you not?
To say I was apprehensive going into this book is an understatement. Winterkeep was my most anticipated release of the year, and I was terrified I would end up disappointed. But oh, my fears were so unfounded! For I am absolutely, positively in love with this book!!! 😍 In fact, I may or may not be rereading it for the third time already, and if this doesn’t become my favorite book of 2021, I’d be extremely surprised…
Of course, part of it may be the nostalgia. It’s no secret that I absolutely adore Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series, and that after Harry Potter, Bitterblue is one of my most reread books of all time. So the fact that we were finally, after years of waiting, getting another installment, had me over the moon 🥰
But this book was also the perfect mix for me. It has politics. Intrigue. Magnificent world-building. Friendships. Betrayal. Romance. The beautifully slow, lyrical writing that Kristin Cashore has never failed to enchant me with. Overall, it’d say it is pretty close to perfection, even though I do still like Bitterblue and Fire a tad more. But I guess we’ll see how that develops after I’ve reread Winterkeep a couple more times 😄
5/5 Stars (I mean, duh. What did you think I was going to rate this?)
It turned out you could make yourself famous, even successful, powerful, by marrying the enemy and having your wars in public.Winterkeep, p.42
While the rest of the Graceling Realm books can be read as companion novels and order doesn’t really matter all that much, Winterkeep is very much a sequel to Bitterblue. So if you haven’t read Bitterblue yet and don’t want to be spoiled, I highly advise you to stop reading this review! (And maybe to go read Bitterblue instead? 🙃)
Anyway, a lot has changed in the four years that have passed since the events of the previous book. Exploration has been thriving, and a new land, Torla, has been discovered in the east. A land that consists of nations that are not monarchies, but democracies. A land that offers higher education to all. A place that is home to telepathic sea creatures and foxes, and that has ships which can sail across the sky. But when Bitterblue’s envoys to Winterkeep, the closest of the Torlan nations, drown under mysterious circumstances, the young queen of Monsea begins to suspect that all may not be as perfect as it seems. Desperate to uncover the truth, Bitterblue sets off on a diplomatic mission to Winterkeep, together with some of her most trusted advisors, her best friend Giddon, and her half-sister Hava.
Meanwhile, in Winterkeep, Lovisa Cavenda is struggling to navigate her own life. Her parents, both prominent members of the two opposing governing parties, have high expectations when it comes to her future, and nothing is ever good enough to please them. Still, when Lovisa listens in on a private conversation between her parents and hears that the Monsean queen is coming to visit, she can’t help but be secretly thrilled. Especially since it is rumored she might be bringing a Graceling with her. But then Queen Bitterblue drowns at sea, changing everything…
Umm, yeah 😁 To say this book is a wild ride is an understatement. But Kristin Cashore knows what she’s doing. Trust me.
One day, the silbercows asked permission to look closer at her treasures.
You can look at them, she said, obscurely nervous. But you can’t have them.
For a while, they poked around her anchors, nets, and tattered sails. They were interested in her Storyworld, especially the two rotting corpses inside the cabin.Winterkeep, p. 107
Have I mentioned that I absolutely love the way Kristin Cashore writes? 😍 Somehow, she has this way of making her words seem astoundingly simple, yet also profoundly lyrical at the same time. Honestly, this woman could probably write a shopping list and it’d still be more poetic than anything I’ve ever written…
However, in departure from the previous novels in this series, Winterkeep is actually not told from one, but several different points of view. For this story, though, that worked perfectly. There is so much going on at once, and by getting clues from all the different storylines, you slowly start to be able to piece the bigger picture together. Also, I thought it was utterly fascinating to see how certain characters perceived other characters so completely differently from one another!
I do, however, think that the writing could have been a bit more subtle at times, especially in the beginning of the book. Which is also the sole reason why I think Winterkeep doesn’t quite live up to Bitterblue and Fire. While Winterkeep doesn’t exactly info-dump things upon you, either, I did sometimes feel like it lacked the nuance of its predecessors, especially when informing you about certain characters’ sexual liaisons or their diverse backgrounds. Previously, I had always thought Kristin Cashore did a marvelous job of including diverse characters without actually feeling the need to explicitly point out how diverse they were, but here, I thought it bordered on shoving it into our faces. I mean, it was still way better than what I’ve seen certain other authors do, but did you really have to mention how dark Bitterblue’s skin was every time a new character encountered her? I already knew she was half-Lienid since book one! And the same thing goes for all the LGBTQ+ characters in here…
Still, that’s only a very minor gripe, and for the most part, the writing was everything I ever could have asked for. I don’t even know how I’m going to survive if it takes Kristin Cashore another nine years to write the next book. Because there’s going to be a next book in this series, right???
Obviously, I can’t review this book without talking about the characters. And obviously, I can’t do that without going into spoilers 😁 Soo…
WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS – DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK AND DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED!!!
Most of his fox friends and relations had simpler existences. They didn’t need to spy on everyone and interfere. They liked their humans, only ever disobeying occasionally, maybe for the sake of extra treats or a warmer hearthstone. Not because they were trying to keep terrible things from happening!Winterkeep, p. 90
If you’d told me beforehand that a fox would be my favorite character in this story, that’d I’d love him more than Hava, Giddon, or Bitterblue even, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet that’s exactly what happened.
When we were first introduced to her mother’s fox through Lovisa’s eyes, I thought he was a nosy busybody whom I instantly hated. And then, as we slowly got to know him, Adventure Fox stole my heart and soul. All the things he put up with, just so he could protect the children he cared about! Even though they hated him! Basically, by the time we got to that scene where he killed Ferla Cavenda in order to keep Lovisa safe, I was bawling my eyes out. Especially since, in their own way, I do think the fox and Ferla cared about each other. I mean, when we found out that Ferla tried to go back and rescue him while he was faking his death, it tore me to pieces!
And yet, I do think Adventure Fox made the right, if horrible, decision. And I love that Bitterblue, with her own horrible past, understands. I might still have been sniffling a bit when Bitterblue bought an extra pastry for him and asked him whether he wanted to ride in her hood…
And it wasn’t just Adventure Fox. While I was initially skeptical about the introduction of all these telepathic animals to this world, they are now some of my absolute favorite characters. The sea creature‘s thoughts on being the center of attention and having friends were so utterly relatable. The silbercows are awesome, and if Lovisa doesn’t eventually become a politician and fight for their representation in parliament, I’m going to be very upset!
And speaking of Lovisa, I also grew to really love her! At first, I didn’t like her chapters as much, just because I wanted to be back with Bitterblue and all those other familiar characters I already loved, but as I got to know Lovisa, I started to love her part of the story just as much as that of the other characters. Her cynicism, her fierce, protective love for her brothers, her resourcefulness, the way she stayed strong despite all the horrible revelations she had, made my heart go out to her. Her reaction to finding out what her parents had done, the way she rationalized the abuse she’d faced as a child, the way she hated Bitterblue despite wanting to save her – I thought it was all so realistic given what she’d gone through, and I’m so glad she had people who were there for her.
That she had someone like Bitterblue, who, even though Lovisa didn’t know it, knew exactly what it was like to have a parent you feared and whose legacy will forever haunt you. I’m hoping that maybe, sometime in the future, Bitterblue might be able to open up about Leck to Lovisa. If anyone would understand the burden she still carries, it’s her; and I love how Bitterblue also tried to make things easier for Lovisa by offering to testify in her place.
“And your father would sit at the table?” Nev said. “And watch you go?”
“Yes,” Lovisa said, startled by the question. “But he wasn’t the one I’d crossed. It was my mother, you understand?”
At the sudden, soft sorrow in Nev’s face, Lovisa went quiet, thinking. Then gradually, inconsolably, sad.Winterkeep, p. 502
But even more than Bitterblue, I was so happy that Lovisa had Nev. I must admit, at first, I wasn’t too sure what I thought of Nev. Her dealings with Quona Varana seemed fishy at best, and all her animal lovingness almost too good to be true. But it was! I love how Nev stood by her ideals, no matter what other people told her to do. And how she was always there for Lovisa. Honestly, as much as I liked Mari, if Nev and Lovisa don’t end up together in some future installment of this series, I’m going to be extraordinarily disappointed. All that yearning was overpowering, even if they refused to admit it to themselves.
And speaking of yearning: I can’t even tell you how happy I am about how things progressed with Bitterblue and Giddon. 😊 I must admit, when I first read Bitterblue at age sixteen or so, I thought she and Saf were the ultimate dream couple and would have been offended if you’d even suggested Bitterblue would end up with anyone else. But as I got older and reread Bitterblue about fifty million times, I started to notice the depth of her friendship with Giddon more and more. How they were always there for each other when one of them needed someone to lean on. How they swore to always tell each other the truth, no matter what. While Bitterblue and Saf lied and double-crossed one another constantly, and their relationship depended a lot on physical attraction, what Bitterblue and Giddon had went much deeper. I don’t even know at which point I started shipping it. But by the time I read Winterkeep, I had it bad. Which made everything so much more satisfying!
They’d had to drag him out of the frozen sea yesterday like a drowning dog; they’d had to go through an entire rigmarole to warm him, for he’d made himself sick, trying to find her even if it killed him. Hava’s face had been tight and scared with worry for him when they’d pulled him back aboard. He was supposed to be taking care of Hava, and instead he’d given her something else to fear.
“Bitterblue,” he said. “Bitterblue.” Then he wept, as he hadn’t been able to yesterday, desperately, like a man who was choking, pressing his face into pillows so that his neighbors wouldn’t hear.Winterkeep, p. 113
Let’s just say I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how devastated Giddon was by Bitterblue’s apparent death 😁 But I also loved how he loved Bitterblue so much that he didn’t succumb to his mourning, because he knew she would’ve hated it. How he tried to go through the motions of life for her sake, to do what he knew was important.
How he was there for Hava. The banter between the two of them was absolutely precious, and in general, I loved getting to see more of Hava in this book! I love how she blurted out whatever came into her mind with that absolutely brutal honesty of hers, and still managed to be a successful spymaster. I loved how protective Giddon got when she was scared she would have to become queen in Bitterblue’s absence, the countless times he called her “brat” and she replied with “bully”, and the way he immediately jumped into a collapsing cave to rescue her. And I love how anyone slandering Bitterblue immediately got Hava fired up, even though she usually hated being the center of attention. In general, I always love sibling relationships in books, and this one was so well done!
Which finally brings us to the villains of this story. In general, I really liked how human Kristin Cashore made them. It was great that we first got to know Lovisa’s parents from the point of view of a daughter who loved them, so we could see their kindness, too. The couple who supported and loved each other, even though they were on opposing political sides. The mother who wanted her daughter to do well at school. The woman who wanted to rush into a fire to save the fox she was bonded to.
And yet these were parents who systematically abused their children. Who cared more about money and wealth than the wellbeing of their country. Who had no scruples murdering a boy who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So just as Lovisa did, you slowly started to realize that the Cavendas were not what they had originally seemed, which makes what they did hit even harder. The complexity of these relationships was just wonderful!
In general, I thought the politics of Winterkeep were fascinating, and, unfortunately, very reminiscent of things going on in our real world. Parties grappling for power and making empty promises in order to fill their own pockets? Complete disregard of the environment and rural areas? Developing and selling weapons for personal gain? All the scheming and backstabbing? I wonder where I’ve seen that before? 🤔 And yet, I think Kristin Cashore stopped short of making this book become a lecture on morality in politics, which I really appreciated. I liked getting to examine the Keepish system and comparing it to what I knew without getting the feeling that ethics were being shoved down my throat. Even though they were, of course, there.
Anyway, I am very much hoping we will eventually get another book! I really want to know what becomes of Lovisa, whether she eventually goes into politics. (I still love that the silbercows speak to her now!) And what about her and Nev? Plus, I want to know about Bitterblue and Giddon’s potentially awful children. I’d also like to see more of Trina, because there’s definitely a lot more to her than meets the eye. And Lovisa’s little brothers seem pretty feisty, too. Maybe we can get a sequel that focuses more on the politics of Estill? I mean, the Council’s plans for that seem to have gone about as wrong as they could have gone, and a brewing war probably makes for an excellent story… And we might get to see a bit more Katsa and Po again, too! But yeah, I’m starting to ramble 😁
I think I’ll leave it at that for now. If we wanted to talk about everything I loved about this book, we’d be here forever, after all 😅 And besides, I think nothing I could possibly have to say about this book could do it justice, so I might just go ahead and stop while I’m ahead…
Still, I’d love to know your thoughts! Have you read Winterkeep? [If you’ve made it this far in the review, I sincerely hope so, unless you skipped the characters section 😁] What did you think? Where do you agree or disagree with me? And which book in the Graceling series is your favorite? I’m genuinely curious!