winterkeep (kristin cashore) review

sept 18 2022

In 2020, I saw the news that the Graceling Realm was getting another book, a companion novel, ten years after the original series had ended. As a major fan of the original series, someone who considers Bitterblue to be a five-star read and one of my favorite books ever, my reaction to this news was...


The UK cover of the book Winterkeep. A blue fox stands in a ship's steering wheel in front of a black background. Blue and gold waves decorate the four corners.

Let's face it. Decade later sequels are usually simply a lazy and cheap way for an author to renew their copyright or beat more money out of a dying horse, and rarely actually add anything of value to the canon of the story. There are exceptions, obviously; Ursula K. Le Guin's additions to the Earthsea trilogy, for example, are fantastic and I don't consider the series complete without them. But nothing I saw about Winterkeep gave me hope, and I didn't really want to read it, mostly out of fear that it wouldn't be good. Winterkeep was being marketed as a huge, bombastic thriller about war and politics and magic, and I had loved Bitterblue because it felt like more of an intimate character study.

However, it had been a while since I had read the original trilogy, and in 2022 I decided to sit down, reread the original trilogy, see how it held up, and then finally face my fears and read Winterkeep. I'll post separate in-depth reviews for the original trilogy, but the basic rundown is that I liked Graceling, slightly disliked Fire, and loved Bitterblue. And Winterkeep? Well... I hated it. I gave it two point five stars, and the point five is pretty much only there because of nostalgia. I would round down if I was using a numeric system that didn't allow decimal points. After Winterkeep had time to marinate in my head, I realized that I didn't really like Winterkeep for the same reasons I didn't like Fire, with a couple of more reasons added on the side.

In my opinion, Cashore is just better at writing single POV character studies with simpler plot elements than she is at writing ensemble cast political intrigue war dramas. The things I disliked about Fire were also present in Winterkeep, because the two were basically the same story. A bunch of characters thrown together, political "intrigue" that is about as intriguing as watching paint dry, the threat of looming war, characters being imprisoned/held against their will, discussions of parental trauma, age-gap romance that comes out of nowhere with an ex angrily looking on... they're different stories, yes, but the broad strokes are the same, and I don't think Cashore pulled either of them off well. She was simply trying to do so much at once that even in a novel the length of Winterkeep (528 pages!) nothing really feels thoroughly explored.

Graceling and Bitterblue's strengths came from how simple they were on the surface. Graceling is about female empowerment. Bitterblue is about abuse recovery. Those simple themes allowed Cashore to really subtly unpack and explore them without feeling like she's merely telling the audience what to think, and the plot, romance, and themes are all symbiotic. Katsa and Po's relationship is so compelling because it links back into Katsa's worries of being controlled by men. Po understands that he can't control her, and doesn't want to, which is why their relationship both works on a romantic level and a narrative level. Katsa performing an incredible physical feat to save the life of a young girl is an interesting plot that also ties back into the theme of female empowerment and Katsa proving to herself she has more worth than killing. Everything is tied together, and it's satisfying.

Similarly, Bitterblue is about Bitterblue finding out the secrets of the city her father built, a city that is literally named after her. Bitterblue City is a metaphor for Bitterblue herself; painted over but really falling apart because nobody ever dealt with the root of the problems that made it that way in the first place. As Bitterblue personally tries to heal and tries to help the people around her heal, she has to go into the city and face the reality of what her father has done.

The romance takes a backseat in Bitterblue, but is also tied into the theme of secrets and lies (which comes from the main theme of abuse recovery; everyone keeps secrets and lies to Bitterblue because they just want to move on and stop thinking about their past abuse). The relationship between Saf and Bitterblue is doomed from the start because of how they met, Bitterblue lying to Saf, and both know it. The relationship ultimately doesn't work out, but plays an important role in Bitterblue's journey to self-discovery and need for physical closeness and comfort.

If Graceling is about female empowerment and Bitterblue is about abuse, what is Winterkeep about? It's about climate change! Gaslighting! Parental abuse! Teenage sexuality! Animal cruelty! Grief! Cities vs rural areas! Political corruption! Nuclear weapons! Some books have a problem where they don't seem to be about anything, but Winterkeep has the opposite problem— it's just about too much. The plot meanders (and sometimes rushes) where it wants to go, and issues will be introduced and then will just hang there, with no development or progression, until Cashore decides she's done with them and wants to deliver a moral.

For example, Lovisa's arc with sexuality is extremely confusing and poorly handled. It's brought up early in the book that Lovisa has an unhealthy attitude towards sex, viewing and wielding it like a tool, due to her only models of a romantic relationship being her very toxic mother and father. Throughout the book, Lovisa continues to use sex with men as a weapon, and suddenly realizes around two thirds of the way into the book that this is unhealthy and wrong. Despite this, she continues to do it. She convinces a friend, who previously was resistant to sleeping with her, to have sex with her when she's in a moment of extreme grief and emotional turmoil. She cries, and he comforts her, and then she realizes she's in love with him and sex is actually fun. This character is then never seen again, and their relationship isn't explored in further detail. This was just such a baffling end to an arc about a sixteen-year-old having an unhealthy attitude towards sex, especially since I interpreted Lovisa as being an extremely closeted lesbian.

Throughout the novel, she constantly remarks that sex with men is boring and feels gross but thinks about kissing women and has an unacknowledged crush on one of her female classmates. Yet instead of an arc where Lovisa realizes she doesn't like sex with men because she would prefer to be having sex with women and gradually fixing her attitude towards sex, the book suddenly does a 180 and has Lovisa's habits rewarded and doesn't have her doing any further unpacking of trauma. It's just wrapped up neatly out of nowhere, with the moral seeming to be "if you don't like sex with men, just keep having sex with them until you find the one man you like!" Even if this message had been delivered subtly and more skillfully, I still don't think it's a very good moral and am disappointed with the way Cashore handled this.

A lot of the themes in this book are handled like Lovisa's sexuality: simply introduced, thought about briefly, then wrapped up quickly with Cashore's grand moral, without having the audience naturally come to that moral on their own. It's lazy, sloppy writing and as a reader, it's boring. I don't want Cashore to tell me how I should feel about political corruption or climate change, I want her to skillfully navigate those issues in her story, present characters with different viewpoints, and let me decide on my own. It comes across as an author unconfident in her ability to deliver her message subtly, which baffles me since she did a great job of that in Graceling and Bitterblue.

Lack of subtlety is a huge problem throughout Winterkeep, not just regarding its themes. The way Cashore decides to get us from the Seven Kingdoms/The Dells to Winterkeep/Torla simply does not work. Instead of doing what she did with Fire, and focusing on one viewpoint character who lives in that world to naturally acclimate the audience to the new setting, Winterkeep begins through the eyes of Giddon. The first couple of chapters are mere infodumps, with Giddon informing us he's a main character and Bitterblue's love interest now, there's a new land that's been discovered offscreen, there's political intrigue going on in Monsea, Winterkeep has zilfium and that's bad because reasons, and Bitterblue's ambassadors are dead.

It's a huge information overload and none of it feels natural. It's only made worse by the fact that Winterkeep was published a decade after the original series, so readers who already are probably having a hard time remembering the first books are faced with an extremely jarring shift in setting and characters. Even as someone coming fresh from a reread, I found it very difficult to orient myself and figure out what was going on. It was such a major shift in focus that I found myself wondering if there was another book before Winterkeep that I had somehow missed. It feels like Cashore has been writing Graceling Realm books in her head for ten years and then suddenly decided to publish one of them, while not reworking it to include all the world and character building the audience has missed.

As someone coming fresh from an original trilogy reread, the decrease in the quality of the prose was also shocking. The original trilogy doesn't have groundbreaking or amazing prose, but the prose is solid. It feels accurate for the time and setting Cashore is portraying, and the things people say in dialogue and narration makes sense for their characters. Some prose in Bitterblue crosses the line from "good" to "great," and there are some genuinely beautiful, memorable lines. There are passages in Bitterblue that make me cry.

The prose in Winterkeep, by comparison, is juvenile and dull. Characters say exactly what they mean, all the time, and their internal dialogue tells the audience exactly how they feel and what they're doing with no room for subtlety, conflict, or nuance. Giddon is in love with Bitterblue because he tells the audience he's in love with Bitterblue. Giddon is sad about Bitterblue "dying" because he tells the audience he's sad about Bitterblue. Characters all have the same reactions to everything and all cry at the drop of a hat, leading emotional outbursts to be less impactful. As a writer, it's lazy, and as a reader, it's simply boring. I lacked emotional connection to the events of the stories and the characters involved in them because of the sparse prose.

The dialogue and narration also feel too modern for the story. The argument can be made that Winterkeep is more industrialized than the Seven Kingdoms, so it makes sense that they talk in a more modern manner, but the characters from the Kingdoms also suddenly talk like this. Furthermore, Winterkeep is meant to be a fantastical city on the brink of industrialization, but they talk like teenagers in 2020. They say "boyfriend," they talk about things being "creepy"; even the adults talk like teenagers. This, paired with the dip into more middle grade pure fantasy like giant telepathic octopi, telepathic seals, and telepathic foxes, creates an insane amount of tonal dissonance when much of the story revolves around sex and abuse.

Speaking of sex, there's a fair amount of romance in this book and basically none of it is good. I've already spoken about my gripes with the way Lovisa's "romantic" "arc" is handled, but Giddon and Bitterblue are also handled poorly in this book. Look— I don't like age gap romance and Cashore does. That's something I've come to terms with, and I've also come to terms with the fact that different people have different thresholds for what they will find acceptable and what they'll find distasteful in an age gap relationship. Especially in YA fantasy, this threshold seems to be high. It's really common for YA fantasy couples to have age gaps, ranging from "fantastical" (100-year-old vampires falling for 16-year-olds) or more "realistic" (17-year-old falls for brooding older warlord). People have just gotten used to this standard and I don't think it bothers most people.

But it's something I personally dislike, especially when one partner has basically watched the other grow up (as is the case with Giddon and Bitterblue), so I probably never would have been the biggest fan of this romance. However, the lack of effort put into it by Cashore is just strange. Instead of having a natural narrative where the two slowly go from friendship to romance, and then struggle with their feelings upon reuniting before getting together, their relationship is just told to us like it's a fact. They're just in love with each other. Why? Because they use each other as their moral compass and are sad when they think the other is dead. That's not romance, but Cashore treats it like it is. The two don't even interact with each other for most of the book, which makes it extremely hard to be invested in their relationship. Then, when they're reunited, instead of having any kind of onscreen development and interesting conflicted feelings, they immediately decide to get married and have kids out of nowhere.

There is no tension or conflict in their relationship, which makes it boring. Worse, it feels like it completely forgets or actively retcons Bitterblue's romantic arc in Bitterblue. In that book, Bitterblue decides that it's okay to be romantically and even sexually involved with people that she's not sure if she's in love with or wants to marry, because liking and trusting someone is enough. Not everyone gets that YA Novel One True Love, and that's okay. I thought that was a compelling and interesting stance for a YA fantasy novel to take, because in real life it's true that not everyone is going to have a dramatic, all-encompassing romance like Katsa and Po. But suddenly in Winterkeep, Bitterblue is punished by the narrative for having casual sex and relationships with other men because she should have been with her True Love Giddon the whole time, and the two decide they need to get married to prove how committed to each other they are.

This also goes against the books' previous consistent feminist messaging. At the beginning of Winterkeep, Cashore sets up the conflict that Bitterblue's advisors are pushing her to get married because they think she needs a king consort to legitimize her power. Instead of making this a feminist arc with Bitterblue ultimately realizing she can deny her advisors because she doesn't need a man to rule, the narrative ultimately says that, actually, she did need to get married. At least if Bitterblue had an internal conflict or struggled with this, it would have made a little more sense, but she doesn't. It's simply never addressed.

Bitterblue and Giddon deciding immediately to get married and gushing over how cute their kids will be also feels ridiculously heteronormative. It feels out of character for Bitterblue especially, who before has shown a vested interest in keeping her independence and has never shown any great desire to have children. Cashore usually does a great job at writing accurate and nuanced portrayals of abuse, which is why it's also confusing to me here that Bitterblue never has any kind of internal struggle over feeling unprepared to have children because she doesn't want to hurt her children in the same way she's been hurt.

Their relationship ultimately feels very forced and heteronormative, like Cashore didn't think men and women could just be friends. The way gay characters are treated in this novel is also extremely annoying to me, compared to the way Bitterblue and Giddon are treated. Bitterblue and Giddon have never been set up as a romance before this, but are suddenly treated as in love, and even though they barely interact in the novel, their relationship and "romance" are prominent and important to the narrative. Contrast this with the one mentioned gay couple in this novel, Bitterblue's ex Saf and Po's brother Skye, and the difference in treatment is disheartening. Saf and Skye have never interacted before this novel, and Skye is a character who has been talked about but not shown onscreen. Then, it's simply told to us through infodump at the beginning of the novel that they're in love and the two go off on a gay road trip, never being seen onscreen again.

If I'm being charitable, I can assume that Saf and Skye getting together was always Cashore's master plan, and this is just another example of things being paced and explained poorly in this novel. Maybe Cashore was just excited to get these two together and couldn't find a way to naturally integrate it into the story, but still didn't want to leave it out. However, if I'm interpreting this relationship cynically, it seems like Cashore wanted to make it clear that Saf was not a potential love interest for Bitterblue, since it's all about Bitterblue and Giddon now, so she put him in a gay relationship and then exiled him offscreen for good measure.

This is paired with the treatment of Lovisa, who clearly expresses attraction to women. Despite this, women are not actually treated as real romance options for her, and she ultimately ends up with a man she's barely interacted with in the story. This isn't me saying that bisexual women who only have relationships with men don't exist in real life, but Lovisa isn't a real person. She's a character that Cashore consciously chose to write as attracted to women in theory and men in practice. As a bisexual person, I don't think there's anything wrong with questioning why Cashore decided to do this. Lovisa's potential bisexuality is not actually explored by the narrative and is not a focus, so why even include the parts about her thinking about kissing other women if you're not actually going to do anything with that?

With the original trilogy, I didn't mind the blink-and-you'll-miss-it gay representation because those books came out in the 2010s. Things were different then, and I actually gave Cashore lots of credit for finding ways to casually and subtly include gay characters in a time where having openly LGBT+ characters could make it difficult for you to get your novel published. But Winterkeep was published in 2021, and I expect more. This representation is not acceptable. It's lazy and in places, downright harmful. How many questioning lesbians are going to read this book, relate to Lovisa, and come away with the conclusion that they simply need to find the right man to have sex with? Maybe none, but the potential is there and that's upsetting to me.

Overall, Winterkeep comes across like Cashore trying to have her cake and eat it too. She wanted to give people what they "wanted" and put Bitterblue and Giddon in a romantic relationship, but she also wanted to write about an entirely new environment and setting, so she wrote about Giddon and Bitterblue being in love in a new setting. But it just doesn't work. Even though the novel is long, it's not long enough to introduce Torla, integrate Giddon and Bitterblue into that world, and integrate Giddon and Bitterblue into a romantic relationship with each other. It's simply too many major world shifts.

Nothing about this book works, and it doesn't make me excited about Cashore continuing to write for this world, because I don't like what she's done with it. It was exactly what I was afraid of when I heard a new Graceling Realm novel was being published a decade after the last one; that it was going to be sloppy, half-baked, and actively retcon or otherwise ruin things I loved about the original trilogy.

If I was recommending the series to someone, I would simply recommend reading Graceling and Bitterblue as a duology (aka Bitterblue: Director's Cut). Like I said, Cashore is just better at writing tight character studies and Bitterblue alone is better and more thematically complex than Fire and Winterkeep put together. If you really loved Fire, you might like Winterkeep, but otherwise I honestly recommend that fans of the original series stay away.

Back in July, I started a personal project to reread the original series as preparation for Winterkeep, and I fell in love with Graceling and (especially) Bitterblue all over again. The question I wanted to ask myself with Winterkeep was: "Is this a worthy successor to Graceling and Bitterblue? Did this companion novel need to exist?"

Months later, I finally have my answer: "No."