Sunday, February 28, 2021

Review: WINTERKEEP by Kristin Cashore


Rating: 4/5 stars

I love the Graceling books, and I was so excited to hear that a fourth book was being published. This was truly my most anticipated book of 2021 and I only just heard about it two months prior to its release.

Bitterblue is one of my very favorite books, so I’m glad that Winterkeep partially continues Queen Bitterblue’s story while also introducing us to new characters and new lands. This book takes place five years after the events in Bitterblue and follows the POVs of not only Bitterblue but also her advisor Giddon, and Lovisa, a girl from Winterkeep and daughter of two powerful political figures, among some other characters.

The coolest of these characters is a treasure-hoarding sea creature! Winterkeep starts out from her perspective as she’s living life underwater and watching the divers up above, and I loved it. It was a very engaging way to start the book, in my opinion.

In this book, Bitterblue has sent envoys to the new land of Winterkeep across the ocean, and they ended up dead under what Bitterblue believes is suspicious and malicious circumstances, so she and Giddon and Hava travel to Winterkeep themselves to investigate. But upon arrival, Bitterblue gets kidnapped, leaving Giddon and Hava to solve the mystery on their own for most of the book. The story also largely follows Lovisa as political tensions rise and she gets wrapped up in some mysteries of her own. 

I love how Bitterblue and Giddon both have fake conversations with the other in their minds while they are separated to help them remain level-headed and get through the trials they’re facing. It’s so wholesome to see how much trust and faith they put in each other. I loved their relationship so much. 

It’s really neat to see the new land of Torla, the continent where Winterkeep is located, and see how they’ve been developing independently from the Royal Continent during the first three Graceling books. They have airships and trains and different technology and language and animals. One of my favorite features of this series is how each book covers a different protagonist in a different country, so the further you read in the series, the bigger the map gets! Plus it’s also cool to see cameos from other characters in each subsequent book. I was hoping here we’d maybe see Katsa and Po again in this story, but we didn’t. The only previous characters who make an appearance in Winterkeep are Bitterblue, Giddon, and Hava. 

What I love about Kristin Cashore’s books is how well she writes political intrigue. Bitterblue has some of the best political intrigue I’ve ever read in any book ever, and Winterkeep is also up there on the list, but not as good as Bitterblue. I could see threads early on in this book that had me giddy with excitement because I could sense all the lies and betrayal and political machinations that were to come. It especially helped that there were so many POVs in this book because one character would mention something that another character previously mentioned, and I was just like, “Oh! I see how that connects!” and then I couldn’t wait to see it play out.

While there was a lot I liked about this book, there were also some problems I had, which is what kept me from giving it the five-star rating I had so hoped to give it. 

There’s a general air of mystery surrounding Lovisa’s brothers (Viri, Vikti, and Erita) that I never understood. They’re kept in the attic and constantly punished and would get in more trouble if Lovisa was seen helping them in any way, and I wish that all was explained. Like I don’t know if something with her brothers was a subplot that got cut out or if the story surrounding them was always intended to be as confusing as it was, but I just could not understand what was going on with them and why they were constantly being punished for seemingly nothing. I sort of feel like this was supposed to be a portrayal of neglect and abusive parenting, but it wasn’t clear if this was actually the case. 

And my biggest complaint: Whyyy was there so much unnecessary sex in this book?? Literally, this book is filled with sex. Lovisa is obsessed with it, and not only that but sixteen-year-olds are talking about sex like they’re experts. . . . That is the only thing I didn’t like about Winterkeep, that Lovisa uses her body in this way to manipulate others to get what she wants. Why does it feel like every young adult book has sex nowadays? It doesn’t need to be there! Not all teens are sexually active, you know! Teens should be learning about the importance of building morals instead of using seduction to get what they want. It’s really frustrating to me, and I’m sad to see this series succumb to that. Why can’t people just court and kiss and have that be enough? Meet in the middle of the night to see each other, sure, but why does it always have to lead to sex in the books? There’s a time and a place for sexy time in stories, and this story did not need it. I’d really like to know what was going through Cashore’s head while she was writing this book because I cannot understand why she would write so many scenes about children thinking about sex and also having sex so frequently. Cashore is so good at writing political scheming that I’m sure she could have devised another way for Lovisa to get what she wanted without her deciding to sleep with half the city. I cannot count how many times sex is brought up in this book, not just when it occurs but because characters talk about it all the time. It felt completely unnecessary to the plot, and the book would not have suffered at all without it. 

That was my main issue with this book, but that’s not all. The last few chapters of the story felt a bit rushed, and there seemed to be some loose ends that weren’t tied up all the way. Some of the most important details that we were waiting during the entire book for them to come to light were left as an afterthought, not even discussed but simply implied that such-and-such would happen. Literally the last two pages of the book I was so stressed because I was like, “How is she going to wrap up this and this and this in only two pages??” And of course she didn’t, which was really frustrating to me that I had read the entire book just for what I was waiting for to be relegated to an unwritten epilogue, so to speak. This book honestly didn’t feel like the end, like there’s more to come about Lovisa’s future and also about the future of the nations of Winterkeep and Monsea with the newfound technology and alliances presented at the end of the book. All of the other Graceling books felt wrapped up at the end like a complete story, but Winterkeep felt left open for more to come. 

I would love to see more stories in this world in the future, like maybe what Lovisa is doing with politics in fifteen years, Bitterblue’s future as a queen who now knows about her bounty of natural resources in her land, maybe a story about Bitterblue’s future heir growing up and discovering even more lands in this realm. Anything would be cool. I will read anything in the Graceling Realm because I love these stories and lands and characters so much. 

Overall, I’m very conflicted about my rating for this book. I loved the character work and the setting and all the political machinations, but I disliked the unanswered questions, the confusing details about Lovisa’s brothers, and the prevalent and unnecessary sex in this book. Winterkeep was still a solid installment in the Graceling Realm series though, full of so much political intrigue and many secrets and lies. I enjoyed it, but I still love Bitterblue more because of the characters and the ciphers present in that book. This series has become one of my favorite young adult series, and I will read anything Kristin Cashore writes in the future, whether another Graceling book or not, although I do hope we get more books in this world eventually. It feels like the kind of world that can be infinitely expanded, as each book is a self-contained story that follows a different character and covers a different location. Winterkeep could be the last, or there could be four more books, who knows?

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