Serena’s Review: “Winterkeep”

Book: “Winterkeep” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Dial Books For Young Readers, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Four years after “Bitterblue” left off, a new land has been discovered to the east: Torla; and the closest nation to Monsea is Winterkeep. Winterkeep is a land of miracles, a democratic republic run by people who like each other, where people speak to telepathic sea creatures, adopt telepathic foxes as pets, and fly across the sky in ships attached to balloons.

But when Bitterblue’s envoys to Winterkeep drown under suspicious circumstances, she and Giddon and her half sister, Hava, set off to discover the truth–putting both Bitterblue’s life and Giddon’s heart to the test when Bitterbue is kidnapped. Giddon believes she has drowned, leaving him and Hava to solve the mystery of what’s wrong in Winterkeep.

Lovisa Cavenda is the teenage daughter of a powerful Scholar and Industrialist (the opposing governing parties) with a fire inside her that is always hungry, always just nearly about to make something happen. She is the key to everything, but only if she can figure out what’s going on before anyone else, and only if she’s willing to transcend the person she’s been all her life.

Review: Well, we’ve finally arrived at the long-awaited (really, was anyone actually waiting on this? I think it took most fans by surprise!) fourth book in the “Gracely Realm” series. I’ve enjoyed my re-read so far, though the high of the first two has definitely been dampened by what I felt was a lackluster showing in “Bitterblue”. But given that it has been almost a decade since that book was published, I was curious to see which version of the author’s writing we’d get here: the fast-action, heartstring- pulling story that we saw in the first two, or the more slow, somewhat bloated story that was last one?

It’s been four years since the events of “Bitterblue” and the world has once again expanded. Winterkeep is a distant land whose society is largely focused on politics and industry. With fantastical airships and the knowledge of powerful resources, Winterkeep’s society is at an impasse over the progression of its industry over the environmental effects of some of the resources needed to power those advancements. When two of her envoys die under mysterious circumstances, Bitterblue takes it upon herself to visit this distant land. Things quickly go wrong, and she and her party are left to unravel the mystery at the heart of Winterkeep alongside a local teenage girl, Lovisa, whose parents are somehow connected to it all.

So, I’ll just get it out of the way early: this, sadly, fell much more into the “Bitterblue” school of book than the “Graceling” type which in turn means it was a bit of a disappointment for me. But I’ll start with what I did like. In many ways, I feel like the writing was stronger in this book than in “Bitterblue.” That book was almost oppressively gloomy and serious, whereas here, while the story still tackled serious topics and had darker moments, there were also several funny lines and observations throw in. Bitterblue herself was a much more likable character for having some of these funnier lines/thoughts early in the book which immediately endeared her to me.

I also liked Giddon’s chapters. He was a strong point in “Bitterblue,” so it was great to see Cashore recognize his potential and make him a POV character here. His relationship with Bitterblue was also much more interesting in that book than her romance with Saf, so I was happy to see their friendship/romance take precedence. We also get chapters from a telepathic fox, a special type of animal that is common in Winterkeep and bonds with humans, as well as chapters from a mysterious ocean monster.

But I struggled to connect to Lovisa, and that proved to be a fairly large failing for my enjoyment of the story. As the only native human character we have for Winterkeep, much of the world-building and deeper insight into this world comes through this character. I think there are a few problems here. For one thing, Lovisa simply didn’t have a strong inner voice or particularly compelling character. Those funny lines I mentioned with Bitterblue? None to be found with Lovisa. I’m not asking for a joke a minute, but her voice simply didn’t have any particular aspect to it that made it stand out, which leads to my second problem.

Much of Lovisa’s chapters and inner thoughts are devoted to long reflections on Winterkeep’s political situation and the challenges of balancing industry and environmentalism. Fairly early in the book, I read one of her chapters that devoted almost half of her page count to long paragraphs on these topics. And there simply wasn’t much there! The entire “debate” about environmentalism is a very thinly veiled depiction of our own struggles in this world. And the politics involved are just the same, a very watered down version of the U.S. two party system with entrenched viewpoints on both sides. There are plenty of good ways of using a fantasy novel to get out modern debates, but these were so washed out and thin that they didn’t actually get at any new ideas or add anything of value to the overall conversation. Plus it’s a fantasy novel which usually gives authors a lot of creative leeway to present these ideas in unique and interesting ways. Not so here, unfortunately. The two parties are called the Scholars and Industrialists, for heaven’s sake! And poor Lovisa’s chapters are just full of this stuff, going on and on.

Which gets to my final complaint: this book is way too long. Just like “Bitterblue,” the story begins to feel like a slog fairly early into the first third of the book. The action dies down, the mystery drags on and on, and then finally we get to the resolution, only to find that there’s a significant page count left to get through. In which, again, nothing much happens and the whole thing could have been wrapped up in half the time. This book seriously needed the firm hand of an editor who wasn’t afraid to make great big slashes through some of this.

By this point, it’s clear that Cashore is the type of author who likes to write about issues. Unfortunately, I feel like the books in which she focuses on this the most are her weakest. “Graceling” and “Fire” both touched on some pretty important topics about self-acceptance and the responsibility and dangers of great power. But when the stories delved into more broad topics like they did in “Bitterbue” and here, these issues seemed to consume the book, its characters, and any attempts to build up tension. Fans who enjoyed “Bitterblue” will probably be more pleased with this entry than those who struggled with that book.

Rating 6: Overall, pretty disappointing and bogged down by uninteresting takes on social and political statement pieces.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Winterkeep” is a newer book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on YA Novels of 2021.

Find “Winterkeep” at your library using WorldCat!

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