Winterkeep: Return to a favorite series not fully successful

Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWinterkeep by Kristin Cashore science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWinterkeep by Kristin Cashore

Winterkeep (2021) is the fourth book set in Kristin Cashore’s GRACELING REALM fantasy world, the prior novels being Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue. The first was a five-star, best-of-the-year choice for me, and Fire was nearly as good. The third book was a bit of a drop-off, though not far. Unfortunately though, Winterkeep continues that downward trend, leaving me, I confess, more than a little disappointed, though the book does end well.

In the past, Cashore has eschewed the traditional sequel mode of following the same characters shortly after the prior book ends, choosing instead to introduce new main characters, send familiar characters to the background, and change settings. That same pattern repeats here, with the setting shifting to a new continent/nation and the book’s focus centering on a young woman named Lovisa, though Bitterblue and Giddon (from the prior novel) also get their own POVs, along with a telepathic fox and a group of sentient sea creatures.

Bitterblue, Queen of Monsea, has been engaged in trade and exchanges with the more technologically advanced Torlan continent, in particular its closest nation Winterkeep, ever since a storm had shipwrecked a Torlan fishing vessel on Monsea’s coast three years ago. But when two of her advisors drown in suspicious circumstances, and a former lover also goes missing in the new continent, Bitterblue, Giddon, and Kava (a graceling with the ability to hide herself from others) travel to Winterkeep to investigate. A journey that does not go as expected.

In Winterkeep itself, we’re introduced to Lovisa, a student at Winterkeep’s academy and daughter to two high-status parents. Her mother is President and her father a legislator, albeit the two belong to opposed parties, the Scholars and Industrialists respectively (currently locked into a fierce debate over approval of a useful but environmentally unfriendly fuel). Her family also has the monopoly on the Winterkeep airships. Meanwhile, Cashore offers up several non-human characters, all telepathic: a blue fox named Adventure who has bonded with Lovisa’s mother; a massive, multi-tentacled creature who likes shiny things and isolation, and a group of silbercows wounded by some strange explosion.

For much, possibly most, of the novel I actually found the non-human characters more interesting and fully realized. Cashore does an excellent job putting us into their different frames and for not being human, their storylines are some of the most emotionally fraught and moving. These sections also felt more smoothly written, tighter, and more evocative. In fact, I wish we had spent even more time with them as I felt there was even more to mine there.

The human narrative was problematic for me, not because of any one major issue, but due to the cumulative impact of a number of smaller issues. For instance, while the transitions between the various POVs were smooth enough, overall the plot felt choppy and scenes felt unbalanced, with many of them not having a sense of drive or tension. Political, sexual, and environmental themes felt too bluntly delivered and didactic. There seemed an inordinate amount of time spent on sex, not its depiction but in thinking and talking about it, often awkwardly inserted (again, not in depicting the actual act) and at times implausibly so. Issues of toxic family life, something we’ve seen before in this series, were also unsubtle, and while they had some strong, more complicated impact toward the end, the lack of full characterization of the two parents meant they felt more like props constructed for the purpose of the theme than fully realized characters. This was exacerbated by some off-the-cuff back history for one of the parents that felt too pat. And finally, several major plot points either felt greatly implausible in their action or were predicated on greatly implausible actions (or non-action).

Outside of those implausibilities, none of these elements were “bad,” but they were relatively weak, and when combined led to a novel that didn’t match its own potential, nor the level of its predecessors. Fans of the series will still want to read it. There are, after all, good elements here, and the ending is particularly strong. And it is nice to see what happens to some of the characters from prior books as they continue to grow into themselves and in their relationships with each other. But Winterkeep so far is clearly the weakest of the series.

Published in January 2021. The highly anticipated next book in the New York Times bestselling, award-winning Graceling Realm series, which has sold 1.7 million copies. For the past five years, Bitterblue has reigned as Queen of Monsea, heroically rebuilding her nation after her father’s horrific rule. After learning about the land of Torla in the east, she sends envoys to the closest nation there: Winterkeep—a place where telepathic foxes bond with humans, and people fly across the sky in wondrous airships. But when the envoys never return, having drowned under suspicious circumstances, Bitterblue sets off for Winterkeep herself, along with her spy Hava and her trusted colleague Giddon. On the way, tragedy strikes again—a tragedy with devastating political and personal ramifications. Meanwhile, in Winterkeep, Lovisa Cavenda waits and watches, a fire inside her that is always hungry. The teenage daughter of two powerful politicians, she is the key to unlocking everything—but only if she’s willing to transcend the person she’s been all her life. The Graceling Realm books are a companion series, not direct sequels, so they can be enjoyed in any order.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. It’s got a gorgeous cover, though.

    Actually, those non-human characters are intriguing.

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