Review: The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski

Here’s my story:

One year ago, I was reading Bookish’s “Spring Preview,” looking for an interesting book to read. I came across The Winner’s Crime, which sounded interesting. But I soon realized it was a sequel to The Winner’s Curse, which came out a year before. I thought that was it—two books in the series. I (mistakenly) thought it was safe to go ahead and buy The Winner’s Curse, then read Crime.

At this point, you, my lovely imaginary readers, may be wondering at my word choices, such as “that was it,” “two books”, and “mistakenly.” You see, I have a pretty strict-ish rule about series: Don’t read the books of a series until they are all out, so I don’t have to wait for years (Talking to you, George R. R. Martin!) for the next book to come out. This is a direct result of fearing I would die before I finished the Harry Potter series. (Yeah, I was a paranoid and weird little twenty-something! Maybe I still am, considering this is a rule I pretty much follow always. 😛 )

I was wrong, of course, about the Winner’s duo. While reading Curse, I went online to find out more about the author and the TWO books (If you know me, you know I love, love, love spoilers!) from the TWO book series and disappointingly discovered that a THIRD book, the end to the trilogy, would not be out until March 2016. Damn! I was peeved, to say the least. I loved The Winner’s Curse, and I wanted to gobble these books up in a weekend, like I do with most series. Crashing into this roadblock was unpleasant, mainly because of my penchant for binge reading.

So I did what any unreasonable person who had a pretty strict-ish rule about series. Despite The Winner’s Curse falling under the LOVED IT AND WANTED TO MARRY IT category in my pantheon of book descriptions, I refused to read the second book, the one I had originally spied, until the third book came out, promising myself that I would reread The Winner’s Curse again before The Winner’s Kiss came out.

And that’s what I did…and it was totally worth it.

As you know from my previous blog post, I bought The Winner’s Kiss this past Friday at Barnes and Noble. But I didn’t read it.

No, I first had to reread The Winner’s Curse, which I did on Friday night until three in the morning. Then, you know, Easter and tired, so I had to wait until Sunday afternoon to read The Winner’s Crime. I finished around eight that night.

A normal person would have waited. But you might have realized by now that I’m not normal. The Winner’s Kiss was right there, tempting me, calling me, and I broke. I stayed up until two o’clock in the morning reading, and I couldn’t finish it. (As I’ve said before, I have a job, and dealing with a bunch of seniors with senioritis with no sleep at all is a problem.) I forced myself to put it down and to go to bed. The next day, the minute I got out of school, I cracked the book again and finished the last 100 pages. (Did I mention that I read the last five pages before going to sleep on Monday morning?  I had to!  I had to know! It’s a sickness!)

I’ve read series with disappointing endings (Prim!), and I was afraid that Rutkoski’s Kiss would be like this.

But it wasn’t.

If you can, read The Winner’s Kiss after you have reread The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime. If you do, you’ll really see how well-plotted this trilogy is.

Rutoski introduces us to Kestrel in The Winner’s Curse, a seventeen-year-old girl who is the daughter of a general. Oftentimes, we think of heroine’s in the young adult genre as fierce fighters who can physically take on whatever comes their way. Kestrel isn’t like that, necessarily. While she’s an adequate fighter in a world where fighting skills, like her father’s, are admired and craved, she is more cerebral, and she’s waaaay more strategic (Seriously, does Katniss EVER seem to have a plan?), something that is innate in her being, as well as built upon by her father, General Trajan. When I think of intelligence in heroines within young adult literature, she by far beats the pack. She uses her intelligence to buy herself leverage over others or, sometimes, just to beat someone at cards because she likes a good game.

But in The Winner’s Curse, she is conflicted about her talent for strategy, fighting against it in favor of her true art—music. She loves music with passion, pouring her strength and memory into her piano when conflicted.

And in the first book, she’s conflicted a lot by Arin, a slave she buys in the market. Something draws her to him, and equally, him to her. Arin, a former aristocratic boy who is made into a slave when Kestrel’s father overtakes Arin’s homeland of Herran, hates Valorians, especially Kestrel and her father. But, like any good young adult romance, this adds to his conflicted feelings when he realizes Kestrel’s depth. Later in the book, when thinking strategically, he looks to Kestrel for maneuvers, although he’s no slouch himself at strategic thinking. Rather than trying to tear her down like many of the characters in the book, Arin admires her strategic strength, probably because he has similar characteristics. They both can see many steps ahead of what others see and act accordingly. But even more than Arin, Kestrel has an ability to read a situation through amazingly piercing observations. Where Arin often reacts to situations, Kestrel creates the situations through her intelligence, often using those scenarios to her advantage. Of course, they both are hiding things from each other, but interestingly, they rarely hide who they truly are from each other.

It’s different, though, in The Winner’s Crime. Moving beyond the borders of Herran, Rutkoski sends Kestrel and Arin into a world of old-school court intrigue. Arin’s emotions often make him seem more rash than Kestrel, who is often forced to view the world coldly and dispassionately to save not herself, but Arin, whose sometimes reckless behavior endangers him and her. Once again, Kestrel deals with master manipulators, such as the emperor of Valoria, who wants her for a daughter-in-law, seeing in her similar talents at strategy as he and her father possess. Kestrel’s lies to save Arin and minimize the steep price of war drive a wedge that seems permanent between the pair.

But the emperor’s not wrong when he says this to Kestrel:

“Of all the lessons you could have learned as empress, the most important would have been this:  loyalty is the best love.” –The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski

Her constant loyalty to Arin, despite her manipulations and lies, prove to be the best love, giving him an opportunity to fight against the prejudice and injustice his people face from the emperor, general, and the people of Valoria.

Then, there’s The Winner’s Kiss. *Sigh*

Once again, Arin and Kestrel distinguish themselves as capable and admirable protagonists. By alternating equally between Arin and Kestrel (I felt the two previous books leaned more towards Kestrel’s perspective, especially Curse), Rutokoski takes the action to the middle of war between Herran and Valoria. Both Kestrel and Arin have pieced apart truth from lie, but other factors seem to disrupt their fairy tale ending. Kestrel, especially, separates herself as a strong opponent in the war games they play. She was not wrong when she told the emperor’s son in The Winner’s Crime, “If you won’t be my friend, you’ll regret being my enemy.” This is a lesson that her father is learning as the war wages, with the Herrani forces making swift and cunning maneuvers at Kestrel’s will.

The emperor likes his games, and the action in the previous two books is often punctuated by strategy games, such as cards or a domino-like game called Bite and Sting, that mirror the story. The Winner’s Kiss is no exception. The Valorian war with the Herrani is a game to the emperor, allowing both he and his general to create advantages through clever gambits. But to Arin and Kestrel, it becomes a passion for their and Herrani people’s freedom, a passion they can’t afford to lose. While the emperor enjoys playing with his vicious power and the general enjoys the pleasure of outwitting his opponents, it is inevitably Kestrel who is the only one who can beat both of her former mentors, as long as she can ignore any loyalty and love she feels for her father. Her conflict in this regard is difficult and brilliantly done because there has never been a question in any book about how much she loves her father and craves his approval.

Ultimately, I’m glad that I read all three at once because I really saw how the characters of Arin and Kestrel grew throughout all three books. They hit into a confidence, but not arrogance, in the final book that allowed them to cast off the final dregs of childhood, while giving them the maturity to figure out how the manipulations and lies separated them in previous books.

Additionally, there’s a beauty in Rutkoski’s prose that I think wasn’t present in previous books, such as this beautifully written metaphor:

“…the whole conversation glowed within her like one of those fireflies. Watching them you’d almost think that a firefly winks out of existence, then comes back to life, vanishes again, returns. That when it’s not lit, it’s not there at all.

“But it is.”  

–The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski

So, my dear fantasies, I do hope that you pick up The Winner’s Trilogy and enjoy it as much as I did. Let me know if you do and what you think in the comments section!

Ta-ta for now, my lovelies,

HMichaele

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