Today is the release of Winterkeep, the fourth book in one of my all-time favorite series, and I could not be more excited. So excited, in fact, that I reread the first three books in preparation and had A Lot Of Thoughts! I’m delighted to report that Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue are just as good as—if not better than—I remember, and today I’m going to be explaining, in lots and lots of detail, precisely why. I guess I should mention that I rated all of these books 5 stars.
Be warned: this post will be FULL OF SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the Graceling books yet, please go do so immediately. For those of you who have already experienced the brilliance of this series, you may proceed. Let’s do this!
“When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?”
1. Kristin Cashore’s writing is incredibly compelling, first of all, in a way that I can’t entirely describe—slightly elevated and old-fashioned, yet still relatable and readable (not to mention clever!). It feels like a story you’d tell around a fire during a long winter.
2. The plot structure of this book baffles me and should not work as well as it does. Nearly half the book is simply following Katsa’s character and relationship growth and then it abruptly switches into an epic quest and survival story, and somehow it all flows together seamlessly and none of it feels out of place?? I don’t understand it and I’m obsessed with it.
3. I’ll be the first to admit that the worldbuilding (at least in the first book) isn’t the most mindblowing, with a generic medieval European fantasy feel that doesn’t differentiate itself much. But I don’t even mind! The world isn’t what’s important in this story—the characters are.
4. Speaking of characters…let’s get to our girl Katsa, shall we? My love for Katsa is truly unparalleled. So much of this book’s focus is on her growth and her acceptance of her self-worth outside of her Grace, which is incredibly beautiful to watch. The scene where she realizes that her Grace is survival, not killing, is honestly one of my favorite moments in any book I’ve read, ever, and I can’t even fully explain why. It seems like such a small distinction, but it makes an incalculable difference to her.
5. Katsa’s narration is phenomenal partly because she’s so unreliable and unobservant. She is incapable of doing anything at less than 110%, yet she doesn’t seem to realize that that’s not the way most people are, which makes so many of her thoughts and actions unintentionally hilarious. Plus, she is terrible at noticing what’s going on around her! Dumbass rights ❤
6. She believes herself to be nothing more than a brainless thug, even though she has literally formed a secret organization to protect people from leaders who abuse power because she can’t bear to see their suffering. But she’s been told all her life that she’s a monster, so she can’t even see how big-hearted she is! It breaks my heart!
7. We also need to talk about Po because, well, I say I don’t get crushes on fictional characters but……..maybe I can make an exception. One (1) man has rights and it’s the seventh son of the Lienid king, Prince Greening Grandemalion.
8. Reading Po and Katsa’s interactions before she learns his Grace, knowing that he knows everything she thinks of him (including her endless frustration at his handsomeness) is pure comedy gold. I know it almost results in their friendship ending but it’s HILARIOUS.
9. me: Giddon is kind of annoying in this book but I remember that he gets better in Bitterblue so—
Giddon: Katsa, you’ll want children someday even though you swear you don’t now, because you’re a woman and that’s what all women want.
10. These books have so much to say about gender and power and autonomy, I could probably write an entire paper about it. So much of Katsa’s struggle is about freedom, since she has been controlled all her life, and for a long time she sees having a lover as just another shackle. As she says, “she could never be anyone’s but her own.” But her growth is in discovering that freedom isn’t about being alone, but in having the ability to choose what to do and who to be with of your own free will. And I think it’s so telling that a major turning point for her is when she’s told to force a girl into a marriage against her will.
11. Katsa and Po are ridiculously perfect for each other and no other romance will ever compare. The way he helps her realize her own humanity and see herself as more than just a weapon?? The way they understand each other so easily and push each other to be the best version of themselves??? I’M SOFT. It fits so perfectly into what I was saying about autonomy, too, because Po is so incredibly understanding and respectful of Katsa’s boundaries and trauma. Your fave could never.
“I love you,” he said. “You’re more dear to my heart than I ever knew anyone could be.”
12. Also, Katsa and Po’s love language is beating each other up. ❤
13. Katsa and Bitterblue’s relationship makes me so emotional. Katsa has never really had many women or young children in her life because of her Grace, and she hasn’t had anyone to look after or protect. Bitterblue is all three of those things and it’s so sweet to see how much Katsa comes to care for her. Also, Katsa gets to prove to herself through protecting Bitterblue that she’s worth more than just killing, since she can save lives too.
14. I’m trying not to turn this into a list of Scenes That I Love (because that would probably encompass the entire book), but KATSA FIGHTING THE MOUNTAIN LION > ANY OTHER CINEMATIC BATTLE SCENE IN HISTORY TBH.
15. Also, the scene where Katsa carries Bitterblue across the mountain pass is EPIC. The way it’s written makes you feel like you’re holding your breath, and finally getting to see Katsa’s (unbelievably high) limits is stunning. I just want to cheer when they make it to the other side!
16. Oh boy, I haven’t even mentioned Leck, the main villain of this book. Needless to say, he’s terrifying even though he barely appears on the page at all. Frankly, I think that’s part of what makes him sinister. The conflict of the book isn’t really about him, anyway—it’s more about how the characters are affected than about the Big Bad Guy.
17. Also, the poetic justice of Katsa killing him with a knife through the mouth!!!
18. I’m so interested in the ways that this book portrays violence, because it’s never glorified the way it is in so much other media (aka media made by men). We see Katsa as a strong and badass character, not because she can kill a man with her bare hands, but because of the moments she chooses not to. Violence is always ugly and brutal, always an act that you wish could be avoided, and the only times it’s is justified by the narrative is when it’s used to protect someone who can’t protect themselves. So few authors, I think, would make this distinction clear, which is just another reason that this book is superior.
“Mercy was more frightening than murder, because it was harder.”
19. I kind of love that Leck’s death feels a little anticlimactic and isn’t really the ending of the book. Again, the story isn’t interested in that act of violence as the ending point—it’s interested in its characters, making sure that Katsa and Po have grown enough that when we leave them we feel like they’re going to be okay.
20. Po’s ending never fails to break my heart. He likes to look at beautiful things and Katsa likes to be caught by his eyes and neither of them will ever be able to do that again! I need to lie down!!
21. But in conclusion: this book is perfect and I will never stop being blown away by Kristin Cashore’s writing or storytelling ability. Katsa and Po are the pinnacle of romance.
“She had no one’s path to follow; her path was her own to choose.”
22. I think this was my third time reading this book, yet somehow I remembered absolutely nothing about the plot. It was fun being surprised by all the twists and turns all over! Once again, the plot structure should not work as well as it does and I’m in awe.
23. Game of Thrones and every other gritty, grimdark fantasy written by men wants to be as good as Fire.
24. And once again, Kristin Cashore creates a heroine who I can’t help but love with all my heart. Interestingly, Fire has been through many of the same things as Katsa—dehumanization and isolation, constantly being told she’s not worthy of love—but where that turns Katsa hard and cold, it makes Fire gentle and empathetic and determined to prove her own worth.
25. My heart just breaks for her, especially in the ways that she isn’t able to see her body as her own. She’s been sexualized for so long, yet she blames herself and feels shame anytime she’s looked at with desire. I believe she’s seventeen in this book, which makes it even more horrifying. Like, she gets assaulted multiple times in this book and she can’t even be angry about it—she’s just tired.
26. Reading these books is like taking an entire gender studies class. I could go on and on about the themes of power and beauty and womanhood and bodily autonomy.
27. At its core, though, I think this entire series is about trauma and legacy. In Fire, we see the long-lasting effects of the trauma that Fire experienced because of her father, as well as the guilt and self-loathing she feels as a result of the damage he left behind. Fire’s journey is about realizing that she doesn’t have to carry that guilt or spend her life making reparations for his crimes.
28. Also, I really appreciate how physical Fire’s trauma feels—we see the ways she carries it in her body, through headaches or pains or fully collapsing after a flashback.
“She had thought herself trapped in a place outside the ordinary feeling lives of other people; she had not noticed how many other people were trapped in that place with her.”
29. Brigan is a hard character to like at first because of the way he treats Fire, but then early on he says, “My life is an apology for the life of my father,” and wow, the amount of character building that single line does. It immediately ties him to Fire and makes him someone we can sympathize with through her.
30. And once we get to know Brigan, he becomes so easy to love. I can’t blame Fire for falling for him. The way Kristin Cashore writes romance is so tender and soft, it gets me every time.
31. Me while reading: Who does Brigan remind me of? Royal figure who feels burdened by the mistakes of his ancestors, a natural leader who would probably rather be healing than fighting, introspective and quiet yet commands respect and admiration, total horse girl—
BRIGAN IS ARAGORN.
32. The relationship between Fire and Hanna is beautiful in much the same way as the relationship between Katsa and Bitterblue—Fire gets to be a motherly/older sisterly figure to someone who doesn’t hate or fear her, and it means so, so much to me.
33. There are so many character in this book who I just want to hate, like Archer and Nash, because they act in truly horrible ways. But Fire has so much compassion and forgiveness for them, which makes me want to forgive them too! Kristin Cashore really said no one is inherently evil or beyond redemption.
34. She also said found family rights! I absolutely love the royal sibling power quartet and everyone else who gets involved with their schemes, and it’s especially beautiful after the 5 billion secret family member reveals when you realize that some of them aren’t even related by blood and they still! love each other anyway! and consider each other family! Don’t mind me I’m just crying over here!
35. Also?? Fire is canonically bisexual and somehow I never caught this before??? Excuse me Ms. Cashore but I’m screaming?????
36. I guess I have to talk about Archer now, which is going to be hard because I hate him. There are so many times that I want to reach through the pages just so that I can punch his stupid face. And yet! He’s a really well-written and realistic character! And Fire loves him, which means that his death is really painful! We grieve for him not because we like him, but because we love Fire and her grief hurts us too. It’s some truly incredible writing.
37. Oops, I forgot to talk about Leck again. Again, he both is and isn’t a major part of this story. What’s important isn’t necessarily what he does, but the way he acts as a foil to Fire and helps her realize how she can use her mind control abilities for good instead of evil (the way Leck and her father have done).
38. Fire is a war story, and once again Kristin Cashore does it in a way that few other authors will by showing the senselessness of war and refusing to turn it onto anything more than an ugly, illogical scrabble for power. Even though the war is the climax of this book, we barely spend any page time on the battles, instead focusing on the characters. I especially love that much of Fire’s time is spent helping the wounded soldiers, simultaneously showing how war impacts the regular people and allowing Fire to use her “monstrous” abilities to help people.
“Dear Brigan, she thought to herself. People want incongruous, impossible things. Horses do, too.”
39. As much as this book seems disconnected from the other two in terms of characters, it feels like the perfect thematic bridge between the two. Not only does it explore the themes of dehumanization, power, and freedom that Graceling gets into, but it introduces many of the ideas about trauma and legacy and recovery that Bitterblue is centered around. I can understand why so many people see this as out of place within the series, but for me, I can’t imagine it any differently. Not to mention that Fire’s character growth is truly stunning and I will never stop loving her.
“My kingdom’s challenge, she thought, is to balance knowing with healing.”
40. Okay, I’m going to say something…and I know this is a big assertion to make…but I think Bitterblue might be my favorite of this series.
41. This is one of those rare instances where an author manages to build on the ideas they’ve established in the earlier installments and continue to complicate and explore them in new ways while also telling a completely unique and compelling story, and it blows me away every time.
42. At the same time, I can absolutely see why people wouldn’t like this one! It has a different feel than the others—less fantasy adventure and more political spy mystery—and it’s slow to start and has lots of different plot threads that can be hard to keep track of. But I just love it so, so much.
43. Out of the three, this was definitely the most emotional reading experience. I don’t think it’s possible to read the last 100 pages or so with dry eyes, and I certainly didn’t. This book also gets extremely dark at times, to the point that I had to put it down at certain points because I simply couldn’t handle it in that moment. It’s an intense book, and I think it hit me harder this time than it ever has before. And yet I think it’s all dealt with really well. There are few authors that I would trust to handle this kind of dark, emotionally taxing material, but I trust Kristin Cashore.
44. I dunno, reading a book about a nation recovering from the collective trauma of a tyrannical ruler while determining which truths should be brought to light and which should remain hidden sure hits different during this particular period of history. Just saying.
45. Every time I read one of these books, I think, “No, this protagonist is my favorite.” At this point, I’m not even going to attempt to choose. Needless to say, I love Bitterblue with all my heart and soul, and I would do anything to protect her.
46. Bitterblue is such an interesting mess of contractions. She’s deeply traumatized and fragile, yet she’s strong and determined and persistent. She can be petty and short-tempered and thoughtlessly blunt, while also carrying such a well of compassion and a strong moral compass. She can rule a nation and command a room with her words, but out of the three protagonists she feels the youngest and most childlike. She has so much responsibility placed on her from a young age and she handles it remarkably well, even when it feels overwhelming to her, and oh no I’m crying again.
47. Also, Bitterblue is so clearly starving for maternal affection, and every time she receives it, whether from Helda or Madlen or Fire, she gets to act like the child she is and I want to bury myself.
“There was no shame in crawling when one couldn’t walk.”
48. Interestingly, this book’s romantic subplot is the least prominent and ends the most ambiguously. I really, really enjoy Bitterblue and Saf together, particularly the ways that they push each other and so clearly care about each other even when they’re fighting. Yet at the end of the book, they’re separated and it’s understood that their romantic relationship probably won’t continue. Somehow, Kristin Cashore makes me care about them as a couple, yet makes their separation feel entirely understandable and not heartbreaking. How!!
49. Also, Saf is basically Katsa and Po combined into one person, which is hilarious to me.
50. Speaking of Katsa and Po, they’re back and I love them more than ever!! Seeing them from an outsider’s POV is hilarious because we finally see how COMPLETELY EXTRA they are. Tackling each other into fountains and having fights and overdramatic reunions in front of their friends! I cannot get enough of them.
51. I also love how much of the Graceling characters we get. We see more of Raffin and Bann’s relationship, how Raffin feels about his position as prince, Po revealing his Grace to more people, the subplot of Giddon’s lordship. Also, this book made me love Giddon again! It took me a while to move on from how he acted in Graceling, but unlike Katsa, I can forgive. I love how he becomes Bitterblue’s confidant and how he supports and understands her in such a unique way.
52. Not to mention that the banter between all of these characters is TOP NOTCH. Every time there’s a scene with any of them, I basically just giggled the whole way through.
53. I really want to talk about power and agency because, again, major themes across these books. Bitterblue is arguably the most powerful of these three protagonists, being a queen, but she still feels powerless because of how much she doesn’t know about her kingdom. Then we find out that her administration was literally conspiring against her to keep her as powerless as possible. Though she is technically powerful because of her position, she doesn’t have agency because she is kept ignorant. So much of Bitterblue’s arc is about realizing her own power and reclaiming her ability to use it to help her kingdom rather than poison it like Leck did.
54. As we’ve already established, these books are about trauma, Bitterblue even more explicitly than Graceling and Fire. Essentially, this entire book is about the messiness of recovery, how it doesn’t always make sense, how sometimes things have to break again in order to heal right. It’s about how history can’t be erased just because it’s painful and wounds can’t be papered over, or else they’ll fester and create an even greater hurt. It’s about the importance of memory, and how trauma twists and erases them. I don’t even know how to express how brilliantly Kristin Cashore wrote this story or how meaningful it was for me to read.
“But that’s how memory works,” Bitterblue said quietly. “Things disappear without your permission, then come back again without your permission.”
55. The whole storyline with Bitterblue’s advisors, particularly Thiel, breaks me. It just breaks me. I don’t know what to say beyond that except that the scene with Thiel and the bridge is probably the most lasting image in my mind from this book.
56. I love, love, love when Fire and the other Dellians show up at the end, and I wish we’d gotten more of them. I really hope the relationship between Monsea and the Dells is explored more in Winterkeep! There is this instant bond between Bitterblue and Fire, who’ve experienced so many of the same things. The scene when Fire helps Bitterblue recognize her own strength is one of the most beautifully written sequences I’ve read in my life. Also, Fire came all this way because she heard about Bitterblue and wanted to comfort her?? BRO I’M CRYING.
57. Also, it’s just really cool to finally see all three of these books’ protagonists in a scene together for the first time!
58. Oh no, we’ve basically reached the end of this book and I still feel like I’ve missed so much. I haven’t even mentioned some of the amazing characters, like Teddy and Hava and Death and Lovejoy the cat!! They’re all so good and this world feels fully fleshed-out and lived in and real.
59. So basically, in case you somehow haven’t already figured it out, these books are absolute masterpieces and I will never stop being amazed by their brilliance. Bitterblue has so much to say about history and legacy and healing and leadership and memory and so much more that I barely even touched on, and I love it more than I can say.
Which is your favorite book of this series? Do you agree with my thoughts? Are you excited to read Winterkeep??