“Things keep happening.”
These three words might not seem like much, but when Queen Bitterblue’s secret half-sister and sometimes spy Hava reels them out to a new friend near the end of Seasparrow, the fifth installment in Kristin Cashore’s acclaimed Graceling Realm series, they might as well be the pulled pin of another zilfium bomb. Only, rather than it being a colony of silbercows or the secret lab of Winterkeep’s greatest atomic physicist being blown apart, this time it’s the psychic fortress Hava’s spent the better part of two deeply traumatic decades hiding behind.
If that sounds like the grimmest of emotional Gordian knots for Cashore to have tied Seasparrow’s snowy survival adventure around, it’s possible you’ve forgotten the various abuses, traumas, and psychological devastation at the core of the rest of the series. Hard-won healing from a lifetime of soul-scarring injury? Par for the Graceling Realm course!
Still, for all that the most significant character growth in the books leading up to Seasparrow has been propelled by their protagonists’ desperate need to escape some astonishingly dark and twisted circumstances, Hava’s position relative to every other major player is such that whatever traumas Bitterblue and the rest of the citizens both in and beyond Monsea have suffered both during and since the end of King Leck’s terroristic “lies-as-truth” reign, Hava’s suffered twice over. First through the baseline trauma of being in Leck’s thrall, and second by having been forcibly rendered so invisible to the rest of the world that she had no one to share the psychic burden of that baseline trauma with.
The brutal weight that Bitterblue shoulders as the daughter-by-way-of-rape of a psychopath who took such joy in terrorizing a whole kingdom—Hava’s got that, but with only a handful of other people to help her process it. Same, too, with the agony Bitterblue feels knowing Leck murdered her mom. Hava’s right there with her, but with the extra burden of not only having witnessed the event herself, but of knowing that it was because Leck discovered the secret of Hava’s existence that the murder happened at all. And then, of course, there’s the fact that from the age of eight until Po sussed her out with his grace of spatial awareness nearly a decade later, Hava was fending for herself in the wilds of Monsea by using her grace of changing what people see when they look at her to hide in plain sight.
While honing that grace might have made Hava an excellent candidate for Royal Spy, it certainly didn’t provide her with much by way of a capacity to accept sympathy from her new friends and family or express vulnerability to the same. And then, of course, compounding the morass of misery roiling inside Hava is the fact that she is both so self-defeatingly contrary and so primed to lash out at anyone tempted to try to get close to her that she might as well be wrapped in poison-laced spikes.
So, naturally, Cashore set a 624-page book squarely inside her head. And not just any 624-page book, but one expressly about the royal Monsean contingent’s harrowing battle for survival through glacial shipwreck, arctic blizzards, polar bear attacks, multiple amputations, near starvation, and one bafflingly committed criminal infiltrator who keeps trying to murder everyone in the shipwrecked party when given half a chance.
To readers just coming off the experience of Winterkeep, this shift is bound to be disorienting. In pretty much every respect, the two books couldn’t be more different. Where Winterkeep was a plotty whirlwind, all cunning political intrigue and nail-biting kidnap thriller, Seasparrow is a long trudge down a bleak, narratively agnostic ice tunnel. Where Winterkeep flips acrobatically between multiple POV characters, whose stories unfurl effectively through limited omniscient third person, Seasparrow traps the reader deep inside Hava’s head, and her first person narration manages to be so suffocating that not only are we excluded from any meaningful understanding of what’s going on with the rest of the shipwrecked party throughout their ordeal—nevermind the broader political implications Bitterblue was left to work through vis à vis everything discovered about zilfium in Winterkeep—we’re effectively excluded from any meaningful understanding of what’s going on with Hava, herself.
This makes perfect sense, as the thing Cashore most wants to get across is that this impossible state of self-unknowing is the boat Hava’s been marooned in for her entire life. And not only does that suck, but it is demonstrably unsustainable. A person, it turns out, can’t live without community with others, and you can be in community with others if you aren’t first in community with yourself. And so Hava has to fight through it. Not just the shipwreck and the glaciers and the polar bears and the constant threat of death from the feral traitor in their midst, but also her own self-doubt, her distrust of and disdain for literally every human she meets, and, most of all, the bone-deep anger she has at her murderous father, and the grief she feels for a world that set her up for so much trauma at his hands.
That Cashore is able to make such an exhausting slog through a single character’s trauma not just eminently readable but deeply effective in its service of the series’ broader political and ideological arcs isn’t a surprise: that’s the kind of narrative highwire act she’s spent five books proving herself an expert at. Nevertheless, the deftness with which she makes ”Things keep happening” the most natural cathartic breakthrough of Hava’s slog feels not so much graceful as it does like an actual grace. And on top of all that, we get a whole new skulk of chatty blue fox kits to brighten up the Monsean side of the world!
If Seasparrow falters anywhere, it’s in its length—which, when paired with Hava’s inexhaustible anger, self-sabotage, and frustrating inability to understand her own thoughts, can make the whole ordeal seem interminable. That said, the whole deal seeming interminable is very much the point, so this is less a flaw in Seasparrow’s execution than it is a particular success. It’s just that, as with all Graceling Realm books, there’s a higher emotional cost of entry than is generally typical in the Young Adult Fantasy space.
A final note: if audiobooks are ever your thing, the audio version of this one is particularly good. Narrator Xanthe Elbrick, previously heard on Fire, Bitterblue and Winterkeep, is back again, and is clearly having fun not just rolling around in Hava’s brogue-y cantankerousness, but playing with all six new blue fox voices (and honing Adventure’s). For such a hard book, having this performance available as an audio backup is a real treat. (That said, if anyone is planning a full re-listen: a new audio version of Graceling featuring Xanthe Elbrick is due to hit virtual shelves in 2023, so you may want to wait until then to get the complete Elbrick experience.)