Title: The Winner’s Kiss
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner’s Trilogy #3
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: eARC, 318 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s
Release Date: March 24th, 2016 (UK)
Source: NetGalley ARC
Rating: 5 out 5 stars
War has begun. Arin is in the thick of it with untrustworthy new allies and the empire as his enemy. Though he has convinced himself that he no longer loves Kestrel, Arin hasn’t forgotten her, or how she became exactly the kind of person he has always despised. She cared more for the empire than she did for the lives of innocent people—and certainly more than she did for him.
At least, that’s what he thinks.
In the frozen north, Kestrel is a prisoner in a brutal work camp. As she searches desperately for a way to escape, she wishes Arin could know what she sacrificed for him. She wishes she could make the empire pay for what they’ve done to her.
But no one gets what they want just by wishing.
As the war intensifies, both Kestrel and Arin discover that the world is changing. The East is pitted against the West, and they are caught in between. With so much to lose, can anybody really win?
The Winner’s Kiss was my most anticipated but also my most dreaded release of 2016. It is common knowledge that I live and breathe The Winner’s Trilogy. My closest friends know and can tell you all about my nervous breakdowns and shoe-throwing over this brilliant series. The thought of it ending wrecked me from the inside out.
We pick up right where we left off – Arin sailing towards his home with the promise of war trailing after him, while Kestrel is sent to a prison camp up north, in the empire’s sulfur mines to work as a slave. No time is wasted and you are engrossed into action from the very first chapters and plot devices are revealed, making your heart pound and ache and squeeze. War is brewing and our characters are caught straight in the middle of something much bigger than themselves. Do not be fooled by the seemingly innocent title – this is not a nice book and it surely will not spare your emotions. The writing, once again, is a flow of a river, so melodic, that even the gore and brutality of battle seems like a song. I could praise Marie Rutkoski’s prose forever, because she truly is a wizard with her words.
Quite a few things happen in this book, making it seem even larger than its almost 500 pages, but none of them are at the expense of the characters. There are books that have the plot lug their characters forward, but this is not one of them. The characters drive the story forward as much as the story drives them. A harmony in which nobody and nothing suffers lack of development. What surprised me most was how well Marie balances plot and characters and gives everyone time to shine, but then I thought I shouldn’t really be surprised because this trilogy has always been incredibly well-written. Then I was just awestruck. Every page was intense and each twist and turn brutal to my heart. I was on the edge throughout the entire book, gripping my e-Reader so tightly that my hands became red, and my breathing was coming in gasps whenever I could force air through my lungs. I even cried, on numerous occasions during the first half, then sobbed my way through the last 20% of the book. After emerging, I couldn’t remember the last time I had read a book this good, nor when I had cried this much that my face was an abundance of dry tears.
When I first read The Winner’s Curse, Kestrel was a breath of fresh air in a sea of assassins and warrior queens in popular YA Fantasy literature. Before May 2014, I hadn’t actually come across a heroine who used cunning and wit to destroy her enemies. Yet, Kestrel is – has always been – more than a sharp mind – there is vulnerability and frailness that not a lot of YA heroines are allowed. She wears daggers and dresses like they’ve been made to go together, and is allowed to take a stumble, but she, Kestrel, never lets herself fall. Kestrel’s character arc is truly a magnificent one, going from an eccentric society lady with a reluctance to keeping slaves to a princess that dabbles in the art of espionage, and in this book, we finally come to the Kestrel underneath all of what she puts up for others to see. Valorian society has always been somewhat restricting, and especially to Kestrel since the expectations toward her were far greater because of her parentage. Even in private, even with the people close to her, she’d always had to be reserved, stoic, proud and perfect – a general’s daughter. In The Winner’s Kiss, she is shed of her social status, her father has shunned her and Kestrel is no more than a moth that got caught up in the light of a flame. It broke my heart to see her struggle and then give up, then struggle more to rediscover who she is and who she wants to be. There was a duality to her, as Kestrel often refers to herself as two people instead of just one, but in truth, she was always herself – layers and layers of herself that she rediscovered and created for herself. In the end, aside from all the pain, I was extremely happy that with the choices Kestrel made, and most importantly – that she made them for herself. After all the sacrifices, the ending she got was the one she deserved most.
I’m not going to lie, me and Arin started out on a rocky path in The Winner’s Curse, then he grew on me, but still managed to frustrate me. Then, in The Winner’s Crime, I wanted to reach into the pages and slap him across the face because I love him too much to bear with him being an idiot. Still, I couldn’t help but appreciate how real and raw his character is, and continued to be throughout the entire series. Arin is flawed, he makes mistakes, lets his emotions get the better of him, but that’s what made him all the more human. Having his home invaded, his entire family slaughtered and his people enslaved for ten years would not leave anyone unscathed. Yet, despite his anger and thirst for vengeance, Arin is kind, loyal, has a warm heart, which Valorian cruelty has not taken away. He is, at times, too trusting, too naïve, but just shows he hasn’t been broken, like one would expect. Emotions are a huge part of Arin’s character – he is the heart to Kestrel’s head – and they rule him, the way his God does. It was interesting to delve deeper into his head in this book, as the previous two were more focused on the power imbalance, rebellion and politics. Religion plays a big part in The Winner’s Kiss, especially with Arin, having surrendered himself to the God of Death. It created a nice contrast between him and Kestrel, and what delighted me was how it was handled – how his faith was not mocked, but accepted and valued. The reason why Arin so fully gave himself over to his God was heart-wrenching, especially when you think of where he stands with Kestrel.
The theme of love is almost as prominent as the theme of war and we see different shades of it throughout the novel. After being rejected and betrayed by the one she loved most, Kestrel struggles with her emotions, is afraid of them. There is that fear she needs to overcome, to come to terms with what her father had done to her, before she can move on. Arin also has his struggles with love and insecurity and how the two always seem to go hand in hand with him. After a lifetime’s worth of difficulties, it’s not easy to let go, but as the story grows, they both grow with it and the end result is exactly what needed to happen.
The secondary characters were definitely more developed and were given more page time. I absolutely adored Roshar and his complexity that was hidden under all those layers of witticisms. He’s a character you can’t help but warm up to, since he takes up residence in your heart and refuses to leave because he truly belongs there. I loved that we got more of Sarsine as well, and got to see how deeply she cares for Arin, and has come to care for Kestrel. She is the best friend you wish you have when you’ve found yourself in trouble. Despite her stand-offish attitude in the first book, Sarsine is a caring and blunt person that will not hesitate to tell you how it is if she thinks you’ll benefit from a scolding. Verex and Risha were the ones I was sad to see go off with such a little presence compared to the others. But their ending felt right by their characters, and I understand why it had to be the way it was. I read a few reviews in which people said that it wasn’t clear on which side Risha was truly on, but I thought it was damn obvious – she was wherever Verex was. She is also fiery and relentless and I wish we’d gotten to get to know her even more. Verex, of course, continues to be a precious puppy that needs to be protected at all costs.
Overall, as devastated as I am to see this series go, I am glad Marie Rutkoski gave all her characters the endings they deserved and gave us the book that we never could have even dreamed of. Literally everything that I wanted to see happen did happen and I’m extremely grateful for that. All of the events flowed together, not one being out of place, and made The Winner’s Kiss into the perfect conclusion to an amazing series that will stay with me, and countless other readers, for a very long time.