If I were forced to make a guess, I’d say I’ve probably read 75% of all fantasy books written by women, about women protagonists, published in my lifetime. Stories are my favorite thing. And women saving the world with swords and magic are my favorite stories. So it’s no surprise I’ve read Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series dozens of times, devouring a new one every time it comes out, and then adding it to the rotation I read through at least once a year. Seasparrow, Cashore’s most recent addition to her ever evolving world, wove its spell on me like all the others. Plus! It continues the Great Graceling Gaying, which is how I think of Cashore’s ascent to building one of the most LGBTQ-inclusive fantasy worlds ever published. Our beloved Queen Bitterblue even takes up the cause of marriage equality this time around, making it the law of the land in Monsea, just as the United States was wrestling to do the same.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Graceling series, the basic concept is that some humans develop two different colored eyes in their infancy, and are then blessed with some kind of magical power. There’s really useful stuff like archery and speed-reading and — one of my personal favorite Graces — being able to smell someone and tell exactly what food they’d most like to eat, and then being able to cook it! And there are less useful ones, like being able to hold your breath an unnaturally long time. As the books go on, the worlds and their lore expand. Under the tunnels in the mountains, there’s a land with magical Monsters, supernaturally colored, who can mess with your thoughts. Under the tunnels, across the sea, there’s blue foxes and sea creatures that can telepathically communicate with humans, and also there’s airships!
Seasparrow, the fifth book in the series, follows the Hava — the secret half-sister of longtime protagonist Queen Bitterblue — a young woman Graced with hiding (with being able to shift herself to look like her surroundings, no matter what she’s standing near). In the previous book, Winterkeep, Hava helped rescue Bitterblue from a political kidnapping, and now Bitterblue’s entourage is on their way home, on a giant ship in the middle of winter. Like all of Cashore’s women characters, Hava is dealing with some serious trauma. Her and Biiterblue’s father, who was a psychopath Graced with mind control, killed both of their mothers. Hava’s, he killed right in front of her. Hava is moving forward with her life, working alongside Queen Bitterblue, trying to figure out who she really is, what she really wants to do, and how to connect with other people. She’s more at home on the ship than she ever has been anywhere, even in the castle where she grew up alongside her mother’s Graced sculptures. But nothing comes easy to Hava, especially navigating social situations, which she has mostly been avoiding doing her entire life.
There are mysteries on board the ship! Dangerous discoveries Hava is decoding from Winterkeep! Talking animals! Terrifying weather! And, of course, seeds of looooove.
Like all the Graceling books, Seasparrow allows the woman at its center to be angry, and hurt, and confused, and scared and messy and even downright unlikable sometimes. Kristin Cashore has never pulled a punch when it comes to exploring the ways women work to put their lives back together after being broken by terrible men, and Hava has maybe the hardest time of any of the women we’ve met. Which makes perfect sense. But she’s not in it alone; Seasparrow introduces dynamic new characters to exist alongside the cast we already know and love. It’s an ever-gaying cast that includes: Bisexual Fire, the protagonist of the second book. Bann and Raff, boyfriends since book one. Saf, Bitterblue’s ex-boyfriend, who is bisexual and now dating Prince Skye, another fan favorite from book one. He’s the ex-boyfriend of Teddy, a lovable scamp who’s writing the world’s first dictionary. In Seasparrow, Annette, the captain of Bitterblue’s ship is in a relationship with another woman sailor, Navi. They’re the ones that prompt Hava to strong-arm Bitterblue into moving the marriage equality law to the top of her pile of proposed legislation.
The Graceling series actually spends a lot of time talking about governing, actually. Pondering what ethical governments could and should look like. We get into the nitty gritty of it all with Bitterblue in the third book, and stick with it for the rest of the series. Which is why the conversations about marriage equality actually fit in seamlessly with everything else the characters discuss. The first Graceling book landed in the world in 2008, the year President Obama was elected, the year California voters overturned marriage equality in their state with Proposition 8, and three years before Obama came out in support of gay marriage. The evolution of marriage equality in the United States has almost paralleled what’s gone on in the Graceling realm, only Kristin Cashore doesn’t give any oxygen to the bigots. They’re some of the few characters in the books that are painted with a broad strokes BAD brush.
In many ways, I grew up with the women of Graceling, even though I was an adult when I started reading them. The first girl I ever loved placed the first book in my hands. Seasparrow is a worthy addition to the canon, and I can’t wait to read it over and over, cuddled up in bed with my wife.