20 August 2021

Bookishness / Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore

Land of miracles
Holds dark secrets betrayed.
Hero, where are you?

It sometimes takes a single word to spark an intrigue, and in Kristin Cashore's latest book, that word is zilfium. During an age of exploration, the backward kingdom of Monsea discovers a shiny new neighbor: the eco-tech country of Winterkeep. This frosted nation is filled with airships, democracy, telepathic beasts, and more: mysteries surrounding the energy-producing zilfium, mysteries that some would kill to protect. Winterkeep (Graceling Realm Book 4) is a rather refreshing read after the disappointment that was Jane, Unlimited (2017), with the vivid world-building and intrigue that Cashore is known for. But the moments of moral preachiness and plot unbelievability distract from what is otherwise a new exploration of the Graceling Realm.

"Winterkeep was a land of miracles."

It has been nine years since Bitterblue (Book 3) was published, but within the narrative, just four years have passed. Twenty-three year old Bitterblue still reigns in of Monsea, where she has grown in wisdom, lovers, and love for chocolate cake and cream puffs. While on a diplomatic trip to Winterkeep to investigate the disappearance of her envoy and the clues surrounding zilfium, she is swept overboard and thought to be drowned. Political and relational chaos ensue, and it's up to sixteen-year-old Lovisa Cavenda, the cunning and spoiled daughter of Winterkeep's president, to discover the secrets beneath--

--Or rather, it's up to Lovisa, old friends like Giddon, and Winterkeep's blue foxes and purple silbercows. Meanwhile, Parliment's Scholars and Industrialists vie for control while covertly pursuing their own agendas--some not-so-subtle parallels to our contemporary circumstances. It seems everyone has a secret to hide.

"Listen, she told herself, but then she became afraid of
what would happen if she learned more things.
She didn't want to know any more things."

Unlike the previous books, this one is told with multiple perspectives that help or obscure the central plot. Although the blue fox is my favorite voice (and the only voice that actually deserves the use of excessive exclamation points!), Lovisa and Bitterblue are the primary perspectives. Lovisa can be quite irritating and immature, but as the story unfolds and unravels, we see the desperate ways in which she tries to maintain control and protect her younger brothers from the manipulation and neglect of their parents. Bitterblue serves as a kind of foil, as she herself continues to heal from the wounds inflicted by her own psychopathic father over a decade ago. In the midst of political and industrial machinations, it's this messy process of understanding trauma that captures the heart of the tale.

Like its predecessors (Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue), Winterkeep is technically a companion book set in the same world. Cashore does a decent job of bringing readers up to speed, with multiple passages about the nature of Graces, the murderous reign of Bitterblue's father, and other backstories. These long retellings can bog down the narrative, but they do serve their purpose. What I appreciate less, though, are the more heavy-handed lessons about environmental preservation. Don't get me wrong: we need more novels that tackle the environment and its abuses. But there are more nuanced ways to do so. That, on top of the multiple unnecessary sex scenes, make the story tiresome. The main romance between Bitterblue and Giddon also made me roll my eyes at several points. (The one redeeming yet hackneyed lesson is that grown men do cry.) These aspects are so ingrained in various characters and plot points that the book becomes encumbered by its own lectures and tears.

-"I'm uneven now,' she said. 'My body is uneven.'
- 'Yes,' they said.
 'We're uneven too.'
- 'Do your wounds still hurt?'
- 'Much less,' they said.
- 'Am I dying?'
- 'We think you're going to live.'"

When the humans become exasperating, though, the creatures come to the rescue. Cashore frames and fleshes out the narrative through the delightful Keeper chapters, which open each of the five parts of the book. The Keeper is a mythical sea creature who supposedly protects Winterkeep and saves them all from destruction. Yet the actual thirteen-tentacled creature that dwells at the bottom of the sea wants nothing to do with that silly (to her) myth. Her own tightly-held secrets and her growing relationship with the manatee-like silbercows are such fun to read, while also providing parallels between the creature's resistance to fitting the hero narrative and Lovisa's struggle with what it takes to do what's right.

Winterkeep brings readers into a world of clean energy steampunk, with intrigue and murder, abuse and ambition, and a side of myth and clever quips. Despite some misgivings, I will be keeping an eye out for the fifth installment in the Graceling Realm.

P.S. Zilfium sounds mighty close to silphium, a real world plant that may have inspired the book's energy-producing ore. Silphium could only grow in the wild in a very small part of what is modern-day Libya. It was purportedly harvested out of existence in the first century AD due to its amazing attributes ranging from a cure-all to an aphrodisiac and birth control. No wonder the elite of the Roman Empire went nuts over it.

Another Note: I initially received a free digital preview of Winterkeep via NetGalley and the publisher (erm, sorry so late!), but I went on to read the book on my own, courtesy of my friendly local library. I also did not reread the previous books in the series prior to picking up Winterkeep, so my memory of those books and how the characters had been treated previously is quite fuzzy. If you haven't read the series at all, though, I would still recommend starting from the beginning, since there are many connections to previous books.

Reviewer Shoutouts: See reviews in Fantasy Literature and Nerd Daily for additional thoughtful perspectives.


The cover

For the release of Winterkeep, artist Kuri Huang was commissioned to redesign the covers for all four books of the series. The old covers had featured objects significant to each book, while here, we see a main character amid atmospheric fairy tale settings. I do like the swirling waves that frame Lovisa on the cover of Winterkeep, but part of me misses the simplicity of the old covers. All in all, I'm glad to learn about Huang's work. See her website for some truly beautiful commissions.

The rest of the redesigned covers (via Bookpage)


Winterkeep (Graceling Realm #4) by Kristin Cashore
Dial Books, 2021
Author Site / Publisher / Goodreads / Bookshop / Amazon

Trigger warning: Bullying, child abuse, sexual content, violence, death.


Read while Contemplating what adventures I would go on with my telepathic blue fox. I actually would like to take a hot air balloon ride, the closest I could get to an airship.

Currently reading _ A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas, If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar

Currently listening _ The Frozen soundtrack once again... I needed some snowy vibes for this review.

No comments:

Post a Comment