Friday 6 May 2016

#CBR8 Book 47: "The Winner's Kiss" by Marie Rutkoski

Page count: 484 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning: This is the third and concluding volume in this series. It's going to be absolutely impossible for me to review this book without spoiling plot from the first and second book. Therefore, if you are not caught up, please skip this review and go start at the beginning - with The Winner's Curse.

Arin is mustering the Herrani into full-on war with the Valoran empire. Leading the Dacran forces that are going to aid them, is the sarcastic and hideously scarred Prince Roshar. Arin is trying not to think about the last time he saw Kestrel and her choice to marry the son of the Valoran emperor. He needs to harden his heart and become the perfect soldier, to avenge his family and the many Herrani who have died since the Valorans conquered them in his childhood.

Of course, Kestrel is not in fact enjoying a luxurious honeymoon, but being transported to a prison camp in the northern wastes of the empire. Betrayed by her own father, she is taken to a labour camp and fed various drug cocktails to ensure prisoner compliance both night and day. She fights to remember the reasons she risked everything, and desperately tries to stay alert enough to get a chance to escape, but soon, the drugs turn her into a mindless slave, just like the other prisoners.

By the time Arin discovers the truth about Kestrel, the war is fully under way, and it would be madness for him to go haring off to rescue her. Nonetheless he ignores the warnings of Roshar and others and risks everything to get Kestrel to safety, only to discover that she doesn't know who he is, or why she was in the camp to begin with.

Can the Herrani defeat the might of the Valoran empire and be free once more? Will victory mean that they just get annexed by the powerful Dacran empire instead? Will Kestrel regain her memories, both good and bad - of the love she shared with Arin, but also the way her father revealed her spying to the emperor? Will these plucky YA characters get their happy ending? Will Roshar and Arin the tiger get their own spin-off book? All the questions except the last one will, unsurprisingly, be answered over the course of the story.

I started reading The Winner's Trilogy about a year ago, and I can understand why a lot of people found the story of Kestrel and Arin problematic initially. Kestrel is very naive and has lived a very sheltered life and has a lot of very rude awakenings to get through to really understand the unconscionable ways her people have treated the Herrani. Over the course of these three books, she really does grow a tremendous amount though and does as much as one person can to make amends for the crimes of her people. She tries to facilitate peace between the Valoran empire and the Herrani, making some very difficult choices and when she realises that once again she's been lied to and used as a political pawn, she risks her life to spy and get vital information to the Herrani in an attempt to save them. She keeps making difficult choices and acting like a heartless social climber, and despite his assurances that he knows her and loves her, Arin keeps falling for her act and believing her words, breaking her heart in the process. Then her own father washes his hands of her, choosing the glory of the empire over his only child. She's starved, beaten and tortured and loses all the things that make her who she is.

Anyone rolling their eyes here - this isn't an amnesia storyline just for convenience sake - it furthers Kestrel's continued development into an even stronger character than before. By being forced to piece her memories back together gradually, she also has to examine who she was and really doesn't always like what she discovers. It's quite clear that post-prison camp Kestrel is a different person than before, and Arin struggles a lot to get used to the fact that the woman he loves has changed forever, partly because he, like her father, abandoned her. 

Arin lost most of his family when the Valoran empire conquered and enslaved his people when he was a child. He grew up in slavery and fought a brutal rebellion to liberate his people, then fell in love with the daughter of the man who led the conquest. Constantly questioning her loyalties and feeling like he betrayed his people, he kept fighting to keep his remaining people safe and free. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and at present, the Dacran empire are his allies against their common foe. But what will happen if the Herrani actually succeed? Will they be able to retain their freedom, or are the Dacrans going to turn around and annex them for further territory? While Roshar is Arin's friend, he's only an emissary of his more powerful sister. The most prudent cause of action for Arin would probably be to secure the safety of his people by marrying the Dacran queen, but even before he discovers the truth about Kestrel, that's not an option he's willing to consider.

As a lot of these YA series with the fierce rebels fighting against almost impossible odds, this book contains a lot of battle planning, political manoeuvring and guerrilla tactics. It's not all angsty piecing together of memories and reuniting of star-crossed lovers. There's plenty of darkness, because war is grim, but also a lot of lighter moments. Roshar steals pretty much every scene he's in and I'm not kidding about wanting a spin-off book about him. The growing friendship between Kestrel and Arin's cousin Sarsine is also nice.

Another trilogy completed, with another satisfying finale. I shall have to check out some of Rutkoski's back catalogue while I wait to see what she has in store next.

Judging a book by its cover: A blond girl in a big poofy dress and a sword (or at least a bladed weapon) has been the characteristics of all three covers in the series. There are actually two versions of the cover for The Winner's Kiss. In the UK cover (this one), the dress is green. In the US cover, the dress is red, much more similar to the first book in the series. If I have to have covers that have little to nothing to do with the contents, I at least want the impractical dresses the model wears to vary in colour. Hence I chose the UK cover. A lot of much more eloquent people online have already said a lot of witty things about these covers. I can't compete with them. I will say this, if the cover designers wanted to stay more accurate to the contents of this book, model portraying Kestrel should have a scarred back.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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