Title: The Winner’s Kiss (2016)
Series: The Winner’s Trilogy – Book 3
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Genre: Young Adult, Historical
Extent: 484 pages
Release Date: March 29, 2016
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?
Finally, the last book in this political and war trilogy! I tore into this book pretty much right after the great adventure that was The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime, and while I didn’t love it as much as its predecessors, it’s still a pretty solid book. This review contains spoilers for the earlier books, so please turn back now if you’re planning to read them. 🙂
The Winner’s Kiss starts with our two leads torn apart: Arin is struggling to manage Herran and embrace his position as its leader, and Kestrel had been sent to work as a slave at a concentration camp up north after her betrayal was found out by the Emperor. The pacing is slow because the angst, as before, is extremely thick, particularly on Arin’s side as he is convinced that Kestrel is his enemy and is hell-bent on erasing any trace of his feelings for her.
I’ll admit: I never really did enjoy Arin’s character. Not in the first book, not in the second, and not, sadly, in this one. Yet for all that I didn’t like about him, I could still see why Kestrel was good for him… and why, more importantly, he was good for her. These two might not have the strongest foundation on which to build a relationship, but after all they have been through, they understand each other and themselves so much better because of it.
“He changed us both.” She seemed to struggle for words. “I think of you, all that you lost, who you were, what you were forced to be, and might have been, and I—I have become this, this person, unable to—”
She shut her mouth.
“Kestrel,” he said softly, “I love this person.”
Rutkoski’s writing and world-building were more than worth all the mind-numbing angst. I’ve said this in my reviews of the previous two books, but I really appreciate all the little details she weaved into the setting to make it come alive as well as the research she has put into making the war strategies involved probable. There was no need for me to suspend any disbelief for the sake of the story — it was just believable.
And I also must give voice about how incredibly handled the relationship between Kestrel and her dad was. Unlike the romance, where we know for sure our two leads love each other, Kestrel’s relationship with her dad was so much more complex, so much more emotionally charged. What would come out of it now, after they betrayed each other in the worst way possible?
The ending, overall, was solid, with generally a satisfying, realistic resolution for the more important loose ends. I liked that [spoiler] the eventual defeat was still over brains and not brawn [/spoiler] — it was consistent with what we know of Kestrel and what the other books have focused on, and I think is a refreshing change from what we have come to expect from ‘badasses protagonists’.
“You don’t need to be gifted with a blade. You are your own best weapon.”
Kestrel felt a slow, slight throb, a shimmer in the blood. She knew it well.
Her worst trait. Her best trait.
Now it must be said that, after reading all three books, I found the whole series a lot more romance-focused than necessary, but my reservations about this couple is probably because I didn’t love Arin, not even until the end. It didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the story, exactly, but it did mean that I didn’t swoon or feel emotional as much as I could have.
Overall, though, The Winner’s trilogy was a great series — the pacing might be slow at times but the world-building was solid, the writing elegant and beautiful, and the political intrigue very well-done. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to read something a bit darker and maybe learn an ambush strategy or two. 😛