BOOK REVIEW | The Winner’s Kiss — Marie Rutkoski

28587801Read: May 2016

Genre: YA, Fantasy, Romance

Rating: ★★★★★


Following the intrigue and danger of The Winner’s Curse and the revolution and romance of The Winner’s Crime, Kestrel finds herself in the tundra’s mines and Arin has sailed home. The empire seems unstoppable.

Lies will come undone, and Kestrel and Arin will learn just how much their crimes will cost them in this third and final installment in the heart-stopping Winner’s trilogy.

This book was easily one of my most anticipated books of the year. I read The Winner’s Curse and enjoyed it for what it was: a YA fantasy that was fairly heavy on the romance, light on the action. The series completely changed for me with The Winner’s Crime, which kept me up until the small hours with its constant twists. I had no idea where this series was headed, so I was actually incredibly nervous about picking it up.

Really, I was right to be nervous; this book was incredibly tense, and almost relentless in its pace. It wasted no time in preamble, picking up almost exactly where the last book left off.  It was incredibly hard to find a lull in the action during which I could actually out the book down. There are two kinds of tension in the book: that of the war, and that between Kestrel and Arin. For me, the balance between the two was struck almost perfectly. I enjoyed that the book was heavy on strategy, though the action was handled brilliantly too. Fighting wars is a lot more than a bloody skirmish, and I loved seeing these characters planning how they were going to outmaneuver the Valorian army. Nothing and nobody felt safe in this book either; life-threatening situations for these characters actually felt life-threatening. At no point did I feel that I could comfort myself in thinking that someone was going to be okay because they were a main character.

Ultimately, however, I think your enjoyment of the book—and the series more generally—comes down to how much you enjoy Kestrel and Arin’s relationship. Theirs is probably one of the only relationships that I’ve actively cared about in a long time. Usually I don’t really care who ends up with who at the end of the series, but I really, really cared about Kestrel and Arin. Because of that, it should be no surprise that I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. Given everything that’s happened to these two, it was nice to see them finally being honest with each other, and it’s refreshing to see a couple actually go through trials together, and to see their relationship develop and change over the course of the series. Not only are Kestrel and Arin more honest with each other, they’re more honest within themselves too. I liked that their character development came more in the form of making themselves more vulnerable, often I think we see “character development” as someone making themselves “stronger” in an almost entirely physical sense. I liked that this series moves away from that, and shows that there’s a kind of strength in vulnerability, too.

However, there were characters I expected to see more of, such as the Dacran Queen, Prince Verex, and Risha, but I think the book benefitted from the focus on Kestrel and Arin. It’s possible that shifting the focus too much would have killed some of the tension, and weakened the book overall.  I was surprised by how present Roshar was in the book, though  I’m not in the least bit surprised that I loved him, he’s exactly my kind of character. I’m incredibly glad that he featured so heavily, and I loved his friendship with Arin, and his tentative friendship with Kestrel. While Roshar figures as comedic relief at times, he is a very well-written and developed character. Really, most of the secondary characters in this series are pretty well-developed.

Overall, I was very pleased with this ending.  The actual ending itself was very open, which is actually something I prefer. Often I think when an author attempts to perfectly tie up every loose end, or provide a satisfying ending for every character, it can come across as messy, so I liked that this didn’t have a definitive conclusion. If anything, it felt more like a new beginning, as cliché as that sounds. Realistically, dealing with the aftermath of a war is an entirely different story, and would probably need an entire series dedicated to it in and of itself, so I’m glad that this book ended as it did, instead of rushing to a “neat” conclusion.

The rest of this post will contain spoilersSo tread carefully if you’re planning to read this any time soon.

One thing I really do want to talk about, now that we’re in spoiler territory, is Kestrel’s memory loss, given that it’s such a huge part of the book. I will say that when this storyline was introduced, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was going to like it. To be honest, I’m still not completely sure that I did. It was a brave move, and it did a lot for the progression of her relationship with Arin. Kestrel and Arin’s relationship was mostly built on lies, and had become warped with their miscommunications, and Kestrel’s memory loss allowed them an almost clean slate. Personally, I read her difficulty in recovering these memories as both an effect of the drug she was given at the work camp, and as a result of her trauma – there are several occasions during which she comes close to remembering her father’s betrayal, and then stops herself. Kestrel was still as sharp and intelligent was she was in the first two books eventually, but I also think I would have liked to see how she would have dealt with the events in the book with her memory. It was an interesting plot device to use, but again, I’m still not really sure that I’m completely sold on it

Possibly the thing that people will be most disappointed with is the lack of a resolution between Kestrel and her father, and between Kestrel and Jess. Initially I was surprised that Jess didn’t feature in the book at all, but I completely understand why she didn’t. I don’t think a reunion between Kestrel and Jess would have gone well, given that Kestrel barely knows herself, so she could hardly apologise to Jess and mean it. Sometimes, however, you just lose friends, and that’s what this read like to me. Kestrel was a different person when she was friends with Jess, and neither of them could really accommodate each other into their lives anymore. So for me, their lack of interaction in this book made sense.

The case was similar with her father. A resolution between them wherein the two of them were happy and forgave each other would have been entirely unbelievable. One of the things I liked most about this series was the depiction of Kestrel’s relationship with her father. Throughout, we’ve seen her struggle with his expectations of her, and her desire to make him proud of her. Her father’s betrayal in The Winner’s Crime proved just how little she knew him, and in turn, how little he knew her. I was actually expecting her father to be killed in this book, but I wasn’t surprised, and am actually glad, that Arin chose not to kill him. It was understandable that Kestrel wanted him dead before she saw him again, and it was interesting seeing her battle with her guilt for still loving him despite his betrayal. I also enjoyed how, during the slow process of regaining her memories, she becomes increasingly aware of their many similarities, and she then struggles to reconcile these traits with her imagined hatred of him. In light of that, it made sense to me that their relationship ended complicated, because it’s always been complicated.

Kestrel’s father aside, I was expecting more “big” deaths generally. I knew that the Emperor would die, and I was pleased that Kestrel was the one to do it, and that it was done through her cunning and intelligence, rather than physical strength. I was fairly confident that Kestrel would survive the series, but I was always anxious about Arin, given that his connection to the god of death was much more emphasised in this book. That, combined with Kestrel saying how this or that moment would have been the perfect time to tell Arin that she loved him, had me feeling incredibly nervous. I don’t think this book is weaker for not having killed any of the “good guys”, I’m not sure that that should be a prerequisite for a more satisfying or believeable ending—these characters have suffered enough, and I’m too much of a sap to begrudge them a happy ending.

All in all, I really, really enjoyed this. This is definitely my favourite YA fantasy series, and I look forward to rereading these at some point in the future!


4 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW | The Winner’s Kiss — Marie Rutkoski

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