Desert Isle Keeper
Winterkeep is the fourth book in the Graceling Realm series, and I’d strongly suggest that if you like the sound of it, you start with the first book, Graceling. Like many fantasy series, the books build on each other, and there’s no way to write this review without spoilers. Fortunately, the three previous novels (Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue) are fantastic, so if you haven’t read them, go have some fun before you come back here. If you have read them, read on with the confidence that Winterkeep is just as good.
Bitterblue has ruled the kingdom of Monsea for several years since we last saw her, and has been gradually expanding contact with Winterkeep, the recently discovered republic on the neighboring continent. When two of her ambassadors are suspiciously lost at sea, Bitterblue decides to travel to Winterkeep herself, along with her senior advisors and longtime friend, Giddon. She does not count on being washed overboard and believed dead herself.
Lovisa Cavenda is the sixteen-year-old daughter of the President of Winterkeep and her husband, the leader of the opposition. Despite this heritage of power, Lovisa herself feels lost. She has a passion for information, but no idea how to do anything meaningful with what she learns – especially when she discovers that her parents may be keeping secrets. For Giddon and Bitterblue, this is a love story; for Lovisa, it’s her coming-of-age.
Fantasy novels typically ride on plot, not character, but Winterkeep successfully gives both. Bitterblue and Giddon are returning characters, and the author does the unexpected by making them fall in love (or realize that they’re in love) while separated. Alone, Bitterblue finds herself longing for Giddon beyond any other person, and not as merely a friend. Simultaneously, believing that Bitterblue has died without knowing his feelings, Giddon berates himself for having held back. Both imagine the other’s voice to give them strength and guidance in hardship. It’s interesting to watch them have their ‘I love him/her’ moments by reflecting on their time together, not as a result of a single external stimulus.
Giddon and Hava, Bitterblue’s cousin, are realistically devastated by Bitterblue’s apparent death. Grief is difficult to write, and their cycles of shock, anger, disorientation, and sorrow feel authentic. Similarly, Lovisa has her own grief, as she grapples both with betrayal and with the consequences of her manipulative choices. Lovisa’s mother is abusive, and I empathized with Lovisa in how this treatment has twisted her behavior and her decision-making.
One thing I appreciate very much about this and all the Graceling books is the lack of gruesome violence. Yes, there is violence and death, but it isn’t a bloodbath like (in my opinion) too many books marketed as YA. In terms of sex, this book falls between subtle and warm. Lovisa is bisexual and has more than one partner, plus she’s not above using sex as a tool when she schemes, which is unusual for a heroine in a book marketed as YA. It doesn’t bother me – I’d prefer a heroine having sex to a heroine involved in torture or gladiatorial death – but you should know this if you’re choosing for a young person.
I should also mention the nonhuman characters in the book. There is a kraken-like character called the Keeper who lives on the sea floor and wants nothing more than to be left alone with her sparkly treasures. Purple telepathic dolphin-seals called silbercows frolic in the water and care for humans, but the humans don’t seem to be caring back. And the telepathic foxes, who can bond with humans and often serve as their spies, create a sense of Winterkeep as a panopticon. The animals are engagingly original and fresh in settings which typically default to fae and felines.
For me, the hallmark of a DIK is the lost hours of sleep from not being able to put the book down – and Winterkeep pushed me hours past my bedtime. It’s a worthy addition to the Graceling Realm series, and a must-have for the bookshelf of any fantasy reader, regardless of age.