The launch date of Kristin Cashore’s newest, Winterkeep, passed with only a small level of hype. It was that same Saturday that I truly couldn’t wait for, because that’s when the book would arrive at my house and I could finally, finally, start reading it. Then came the age-old struggle of wanting to take it in slow for that first read warring against the desire to devour the whole thing and know its ending.
I finished in less than a week.
Just a heads-up, yes the first half of the review is spoiler-free. I’ll talk about the book’s place in the overall series in the first part and then review how well the individual elements (character, setting, and plot) support the whole in the second. But there were some spoilery details I really wanted to talk about, and those will be found in part three.
Winterkeep is marketed as book 4 of the Graceling Realm series, but I think that fans of the previous books will find this is not quite the same. Although each of the three previous books involved different PoV characters, there were several elements that tied them all together. The most important and cohesive of them all was that the antagonist, at least, transcended the first book. Leck was the main villain in Graceling, a minor but disturbing player in Fire, and powerful ghostly legacy in Bitterblue.
I would not say that the first three Graceling Realms were about Leck, because to say so would be a disservice to the strengths of Katsa, Fire, Bitterblue, and all the other characters had to survive him. But, although the ghost of Leck still flits at the edges of Monsea’s and Bitterblue’s growth, the horrors of his deeds are little more than bad memories. Winterkeep is about something else entirely. Essentially, it feels like a sequel series. I think if you walk into Winterkeep armed with that knowledge, it will be easier, less jarring, to read.
With the above statements in mind, I enjoyed the book. Cashore writes characters that are heartbreakingly relatable, and Winterkeep was no different. While there are depressingly few cameo appearances of many beloved characters from past books–and an odd choice of characters who do make their reappearance–getting to read from the perspective of one previously minor character, Giddon, at least serves as a balm. And getting to see more of Hava was something I didn’t know I needed. Readers will also be incredibly happy to see just how much Bitterblue has grown in these past several years.
If I was worried about the clash between the very medieval world of the nine kingdoms with the very democratic, technologically advanced nations found to the east, I shouldn’t have. Winterkeep certainly feels like a completely different setting, but their wealth compared to Monsea, and the power that they could have over the lands to the west if they wanted to, is a consideration that pops up on more than a few occasions.
So. World-building and character work was, as always, up to Cashore’s usual standards. The only thing, really, that I wasn’t too crazy about was the somewhat chaotic nature of the plot. This might’ve had something to do with the multiple PoVs that Winterkeep sports, but for Cashore fans who thought Bitterblue was too convoluted, you may find yourself of the same mind with Winterkeep. The latter book ties together most of the loose threads, no doubt leaving certain ones specifically for the sequel, and in that, I would definitely say Cashore wrote to her usual intense, gripping style. But, yes, there is a lot going on.
Overall, I wound up rating the book at a solid, worth-while four stars. As a heavily character-driven narrative, well-written and intriguing, it was just the kind of story I would expect from Cashore.
Expectations vs Reality (Spoiler Edition!)
Back in June, shortly after Winterkeep was first announced, I made a list of some of the things that I hoped would find its way into the book, and I can’t not talk about them. But, be warned, there are going to be some major spoilers woven in here, so proceed with caution.
- That Giddon/Bitterblue Romance: Bitterblue is a fully-fledged adult now, and I loved to see that she got the chance to be with other lovers before she realized who it was she was in love with. It was so wholesome, too, to read about both of them “talking” to the other person when they were conflicted. It was something that Bitterblue did in her own novel, talking to Giddon to help her think through a problem, and now we get to see that Giddon, inadvertently, also does the same. I hate the marriage proposal that seemed to come out of left field, but alas, at least we know they make a good team. Giddon would make a better king than Saf would have done, certainly.
- Moving Past Leck: As I said above, obviously Leck’s not a major figure in Winterkeep. Still, there were so many little things that kept reminding me of his presence. Monsea has done rather well under Bitterblue’s administration, but she’s still trying to catch up on education, on finding funds that will help her people. And every time she interacted with Lovisa, though Leck was never mentioned, I could see how Bitterblue’s grown in the compassion she shares for someone she could have easily been cruel to or dismissive of.
- We Don’t Forget the Dells: This was the most disappointing thing of them all, I think. Everyone kept referring to the Seven Nations (now that Estill is a militaristic democracy, they can’t be called the Seven Kingdoms anymore) but that seems to forget The Dells and Pikkia. We know the Keepish also know some Lingian (short for “Gracelingian”), but although The Dells definitely had its own language (ozaleegh), there is no mention of it in Winterkeep, or of Dellian/Pikkian explorers coming to trade with the Keepish.
- Actually, I Hope We Don’t Forget Any of the Established Kingdoms: There are consequences to the deposition of the monarch that happened in Bitterblue, and I appreciate that it’s shown how meddling in other countries’ affairs can have unintended consequences. But, honestly, it was disappointing that Estill was really the only country we got to hear about.
- Some Explanation is Given as to Why Winterkeep Has Not Found Monsea’s Continent Yet: I don’t think that very much time was spent on this particular question. My impression is that Winterkeep knew of the nine kingdoms but thought that they were a little backward because of their monarchy and lack of technology, and so left them alone until recently. It helps, too, that trade between Winterkeep and Monsea has been happening for a few years now, which made the interactions between the different characters and cultures a little more smooth.
- Conflicting Magic Systems: In regards to the foxes, ha, I hit that topic right on the nose. It was cool to see that the blue foxes could easily manipulate the minds of the Keepish but had to be more careful with Monseans because of their strong minds. The silbercows were a surprise addition to the Keepish magic system: manatee/seal type creatures that can speak telepathically to some people.
Lastly: A Reading Update
I managed to finally finish off Mistborn on Sunday night, so as of February 1st, I was able to begin the romance reading challenge. I’ll officially be starting off with Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, though due to the sheer size of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I plan on getting a head start on it as well. Either way, I won’t be doing a blog post for every single romance book, but I promise, I am still reading them. I’ll try to throw in some reading updates at the end of my blog post each week in the interim, though. 🙂