Readers have waited patiently to return to the fantastical world of Kristin Cashore's bestselling Graceling Realm books. Cashore introduced the world of the Seven Kingdoms in 2008's William C. Morris Award finalist, Graceling. The tales continued with Fire in 2009 and moved to the neighboring kingdom of Monsea with 2012's Bitterblue. In January 2021, readers can finally make their long-awaited return to the Graceling Realm with the publication of Winterkeep.
Here's the official synopsis of Winterkeep from Dial, Cashore's publisher:
For the past five years, Bitterblue has reigned as Queen of Monsea, heroically rebuilding her nation after her father’s horrific rule. After learning about the land of Torla in the east, she sends envoys to the closest nation there: Winterkeep—a place where telepathic foxes bond with humans, and people fly across the sky in wondrous airships. But when the envoys never return, having drowned under suspicious circumstances, Bitterblue sets off for Winterkeep herself, along with her spy Hava and her trusted colleague Giddon. On the way, tragedy strikes again—a tragedy with devastating political and personal ramifications. Meanwhile, in Winterkeep, Lovisa Cavenda waits and watches, a fire inside her that is always hungry. The teenage daughter of two powerful politicians, she is the key to unlocking everything—but only if she’s willing to transcend the person she’s been all her life.
Pick up a copy of Winterkeep from your local bookstore or library on January 19, 2021! In the meantime, scroll down to see the exquisite cover of Winterkeep, which was illustrated by Kuri Huang and designed by Theresa Evangelista and Jessica Jenkins. We're also thrilled to share the gorgeous new covers for each of the Graceling Realm tales, as well as our discussion with Cashore and an exclusive excerpt from Winterkeep.
How did you feel when you saw the cover for Winterkeep and the redesigned covers for the previous Graceling Realm novels for the first time?
I was blown away. The artist, Kuri Huang, creates images of such color and depth. It was a fascinating process, too, because with the way the artist works, we saw early sketches that turned into rough color representations, then eventually led to the gorgeous, detailed, layered images that you see now. So in the beginning, I wasn't sure where it was going. It was exciting to watch it go to such a beautiful place! I couldn't be happier.
Winterkeep features a person of color on the cover. What does this mean to you? What do you hope it will mean to readers?
Winterkeep is told in multiple perspectives, including those of characters from my previous books and some new characters, too. Arguably the most central character, the person at the heart of the book, is a young woman named Lovisa Cavenda, who's a student at the Winterkeep Academy and the daughter of Keepish politicians. Like most people in Winterkeep, Lovisa has brown skin and dark hair and eyes. And since our conceit with these new covers is to show a main character on the cover, Lovisa was the obvious choice. It was important to me that the woman on the cover look and feel like Lovisa! It wouldn't have made sense to represent her any other way. I hope readers agree.
I couldn’t help but notice that Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue (and your stand-alone novel, Jane, Unlimited, for that matter) are all essentially named after their protagonists, whereas Winterkeep seems to be titled after its setting rather than after a person. Does this reflect a change in the lens of the story? Is Winterkeep the story of a place rather than of a person?
Titles are always so tricky! Since this book, unlike my previous books, is told in multiple perspectives, it didn't feel entirely right to try to name it after one character. The other titles in the series are each a single word with a fantasy-ish feel, so after a lot of consideration, Winterkeep felt like the best choice. We also considered Winter Keeper, which would have brought it back to the idea of character, but it was a little vague, and it broke our one-word tradition. So we went with Winterkeep. (I spent an entire writing retreat with friends years ago agonizing over what the place should be called, even creating a whiteboard with options, but that's a whole other story!)
Winterkeep is a land my readers won't have seen before, wintry and beautiful, with an elected government, airships, telepathic foxes and powerful fuels that are creating an environmental crisis. And while I suppose on some level, Winterkeep is the story of a place, really it's the story of people, just like all my other books. I tend to write pretty character-driven books. I'd say it's the story of families and friends, working to figure out how to take care of each other and the earth.
I hear that you’re a fan of wintry settings but not of winter itself. Could you share a few of your favorite literary winters and what you love about them?
There are some passages in the Kingdom Books by Cynthia Voigt that broke my heart open with their winter imagery. I think I've been drawn to those settings ever since! There's something so delicious about reading a book that has all the atmosphere of winter, snow and harsh beauty, wanting to be a part of that story but not really. Wanting to imagine being a part of that story, while in fact you're comfortable and cozy inside. I suspect that some of my childhood wintry reads, like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, also worked on my heart this way. As I was writing Winterkeep, I had the great good fortune to participate in an artist retreat on a tall ship in the Arctic Ocean for two weeks, sailing around the coast of Svalbard. The landscape entered my heart in the same way, like a little seed of magic taking root. I don't think Winterkeep is my last wintry book!
Giddon was carrying a sleeping child through a rocky tunnel when he got his first clue that something was wrong in Winterkeep.
The child’s name was Selie, she was 8, and she was not small. In fact, Giddon was starting to wonder if she was growing while he carried her. Surely she was objectively heavier now than she’d been when she’d held her arms up to him two hours ago, a gesture that hadn’t surprised him, for the children always wanted Giddon to carry them through the tunnels. He was bigger, more interesting and less anxious than their parents, or so the children thought. Giddon was actually quite anxious during these missions for the Council, these smuggling journeys through the tunnels from Estill to Monsea, but he buried his worries deep, where they couldn’t reach his eyes or his voice. It was more helpful to seem calm and reassuring.
So he carried Selie calmly, with exhausted shoulders and dead arms, wading through streams, trying to measure the fatigue in the drawn, white faces of her family, stepping carefully from rock to crevice to stone on an uneven path lit by the lantern of Selie’s older sister, Ranie, who, at 19, kept giving Giddon sly, flirtatious glances. He was used to this, too, on these missions. He’d gotten in the habit of mentioning his beloved girlfriend frequently in conversation. Giddon didn’t have a girlfriend. It was another thing he pretended, to keep things simpler.
He put up a hand to stop Selie’s head from lolling. Children are bizarrely flexible, thought Giddon. Sometimes it seemed like her head would roll right off her body and plop onto the rocks. And Selie was the reason for this journey through the tunnels to Monsea, for she was a Graceling, Graced with mind reading. In Estill, Gracelings were the property of the new government, which exploited their special abilities however it saw fit. There were all kinds of Graces, ranging from skills as banal as imitating bird calls to more useful capacities such as speed on foot, predicting the weather, fighting, mental manipulation or mind reading. In Monsea, where Queen Bitterblue made the rules, Gracelings were free.
The Council—which had no other official name, just the Council—was a secret international group of spies, rescuers, fighters, plotters and consultants, headed by Giddon and a few of his friends—Raffin, Bann, Katsa, Po—that came to the aid of anyone anywhere in the Seven Nations suffering unjustly under the rule of law. The Council had started small some 14 or 15 years ago—Katsa had started it—but now its reach was vast.
Giddon and his friends had, in fact, assisted the Estillans with the coup of their corrupt king. But then the makeshift republic that had taken the place of Estill’s monarchy had turned out to be more militarized than the Council had anticipated. And the Council never held with governments owning Gracelings.
So here Giddon was, secretly sneaking Gracelings away from the Estillan government he’d helped to establish. Trying to avoid the Estillan soldiers armed with swords and bows who had begun patrolling the Estillan forests recently, asking for the identification of anyone they met.
Giddon’s sword was heavy at his side. He found some strength to hold Selie tighter, in case she was cold. It was early May and frigid underground. A steady trickle from a hidden ledge above had been plaguing them for the last 20 minutes, and Giddon had found it hard to keep the child’s hat and scarf dry. Some two hours from now, the path would change, turn into the steady, downhill slope that would deliver them gently to the forests outside Bitterblue City. And Giddon would bring this family to the Council allies in Monsea who were awaiting them, then return himself to Bitterblue’s court. Fall into bed, sleep for a year. Then go find Bitterblue.
“Did my father remember to give you that message?” Ranie said to Giddon, speaking so quietly that he had to move closer to her, lean in.
“What message?” he said, liking, despite himself, the way voices rumbled through these tunnels, turning into whispers, like the trickling water.
“Papa?” said Ranie, turning back to speak to the balding man who plodded along resolutely behind them, a sleeping baby strapped to his front. Beside him, his wife marched with an expression on her face like she would walk forever, if that’s what it took. It was an exhausted but determined sort of expression that Giddon recognized. He suspected she was walking on blistered feet. Parents did heroic things for their children.
“Papa, didn’t you have a message for Giddon?” said Ranie.
“Oh, yes,” said the man, blinking as if waking, then seeming startled by the volume of his own voice. The tunnels could do that, lull you into a sense of being inside yourself. Conversation could seem like violence.
“It’s a message about those two Monseans whose ship went down in Winterkeep,” said the man. “You know about that ship, the Seashell?”
Giddon suddenly saw Queen Bitterblue at the door to his rooms, clutching a letter, her tear-strewn face upturned to him. Bitterblue’s envoy to Winterkeep, Mikka, and one of her advisers, Brek, had died in that shipwreck on the other side of the world. And it had been an accident—Giddon had assured her over and over, hugging her in his doorway—but still, she’d blamed herself, for she’d been the one who’d sent those men away, to a death so far from home.
“Yes,” Giddon said grimly. “I know about the drowned Monseans.”
“I’m supposed to tell you that they had some news about something called zilfium.”
“News about zilfium?” said Giddon, who found this message rather opaque. Zilfium, to the best of his memory, was a kind of fuel that was important in Winterkeep, but he couldn’t remember why. “What news?”
“I don’t know,” said the man. “I only know that they wanted to tell Queen Bitterblue some news about zilfium, but then they went sailing that day and drowned. So the queen should learn what she can about zilfium.”
“Who told you to tell me this?” said Giddon.
“The man who brought us to the start of the tunnels, where you met us,” he said. “Bann, the one who’s the consort of Prince Raffin of the Middluns. He said he had it from Prince Raffin, who had it from a letter one of the Monseans wrote to him before he drowned.”
Council messages were often passed like this—from mouth to mouth. “Did Bann give you anything for me in writing?”
“No, nothing,” said the man. “Only what I’ve said: that before that ship went down, the Monseans had wanted to tell Queen Bitterblue some news about zilfium, so maybe Queen Bitterblue should look into zilfium.”
This message was intensely annoying, and Giddon didn’t think it was merely because he was wet and exhausted and carrying a child made of lead. One, he didn’t understand it. Two, he suspected some part of it was missing. And three, the reminder of her dead men was probably going to make Bitterblue cry.
Ranie was walking close to him again and speaking so quietly that he had to bend down to her. He began to wonder if she might be doing this on purpose.
“What’s zilfium, Giddon?” she asked.
A stream of icy water hit the back of his neck. “I’m not sure,” he said crossly.
“She is doing it on purpose,” said Selie sleepily in his ear, making him jump. He’d been sure the child was asleep.
“Doing what?” he said, somehow finding this to be the most aggravating thing yet. Mind readers!
“Ranie’s talking in a low voice so you’ll get close to her,” Selie whispered, too quietly for anyone else to hear. “Also, I know your girlfriend is imaginary.”
“Oh? And do you know you’re as heavy as a horse?”
Selie was giggling. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I won’t tell.”