In Winterkeep, the westernmost country of Torla, humans are bonded to blue foxes, who can read minds and communicate telepathically. Winterkeep is governed by prime ministers rather than kings, and airships rather than horses and wagons provide the transportation. The country has a parliament, a major university, and rival political factions, each with their own agendas and schemes.
The novel is made up of five parts, each beginning with a chapter told from the perspective of the Keeper, a shy, reclusive sea monster reminiscent of the kraken, with 13 tentacles, 23 eyes, and a body the size of a small mountain. The Keeper, fascinated by shiny things, collects human baubles and trinkets. According to the lore of Winterkeep, the Keeper maintains the balance of the planet, protecting the sea while humans protect the land. But this keeper is scared, lonely, and hesitant to involve herself in the plots of humankind. One day, a sunken ship comes into her possession, a ship with a locked cabin and two decomposing bodies trapped within. And thus, the mystery begins.
At the heart of the story is Lovisa, a 16-year-old Keepish student, the daughter of two politicians who lead rival factions. Having grown up in the world of politics, Lovisa is sharp-eyed, quick-witted, and curious, constantly appraising those around her. She is the catalyst for much of the novel’s plot, as her personality is such that she leaves no stone unturned. Jaded by the deceptions of politics, Lovisa wonders “[w]hy […] she work[ed] so hard, when she cared so little? She’d never found politics difficult to follow, because every dispute was the same. People were motivated by money, power, idealism, fame. Usually money.”
The character of Bitterblue returns from the previous novel, now the 23-year-old queen of Monsea and facing many conundrums. Her envoys to Winterkeep have mysteriously disappeared at sea, as has her Keepish lover, who seems to have been investigating their disappearance when he too vanished. The final straw is when Bitterblue learns that the Keepish government has been robbing her of zilfium, a costly fuel used to power trains, ships, and other machinery. Taking advantage of her kingdom’s ignorance, Keepish importers have been buying the zilfium deposits at nominal cost. Enraged, Bitterblue decides to journey across the sea to Winterkeep, along with her companions Giddon and Hava, to establish diplomatic relations with the Keepish Parliament and investigate the disappearances of her men. Things go awry from there. By the end of Part One, the mystery has already grown into a multilayered web of intrigue, weaving together Lovisa, Bitterblue, and the missing envoys.
Cashore utilizes five points of view in Winterkeep, a stylistic departure from the singular perspective in her previous books. This technique lends itself well to capturing the sweeping political intrigue occurring across multiple settings. It also provides Cashore with the room to explore nuanced issues from the perspectives of the privileged and the marginalized, the insider and the foreigner. The world-building in the novel is thus notable. While the previous books in the series often repurposed common tropes of medieval fantasy, Cashore now deviates from those conventions to create a world rich in innovative detail and diversity. Aspects such as weather patterns, languages, architecture, and even urban planning are not overlooked.
The politics of Winterkeep allude to our present. The Keepish government is formed of two rival factions: the Industrialists and the Scholars. The Industrialists support the legalization of zilfium because they believe that without it and the technology it enables, Winterkeep will fall behind as the rest of the world advances. Meanwhile, the Scholars, the current ruling party, oppose the legalization of zilfium because of its detrimental impact on the environment. Or so they say. As the story progresses, Cashore deftly weaves in conflicting motivations, exposing the self-interest and greed at the heart of Keepish politics. One of the Scholar leaders holds a monopoly on airships, the sole mode of high-tech transportation that does not require zilfium for fuel. Another parliament member would be negatively impacted by increased trade between Winterkeep and its neighboring countries, as the trade route would cut off her silver mine. Each character’s goals and beliefs are influenced by their respective contexts and backgrounds, which Cashore takes care to explore. The richness of the world she depicts is owed to these details; no characters, not even the villains, are flat and one-dimensional.
Having read Bitterblue over eight years ago, I assumed that I would have forgotten much of the Graceling Realm world, but the ease with which I settled into Winterkeep surprised me. Cashore’s writing style is at once familiar and much improved over the earlier books. While her strong plotting and flair for suspense remain much the same, her world-building is more nuanced, with more room left for moral ambiguity. In some ways, Winterkeep feels like a book about our world today, albeit with telepathic foxes and shapeshifting heroines. Cashore asks us to examine our relationships and the dynamics within our communities, the ways in which we, too, are complicit in structures of power. She presents hard choices for her characters, and harder ones for her readers. In a world ravaged by warfare and environmental destruction, subject to the whims of tyrannical leaders, Cashore asks us what to do when our fairy tales are stripped away. Without a fabled Keeper to protect us, will we become the keepers and protectors of each other?
Krystal Song is a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant with roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Much of her work touches on themes of the Sino diaspora experience, as well as the shifting nature of memory and history. She recently moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco and misses the tacos.