The Winner’s Trilogy comes to a close with The Winner’s Kiss as Kestrel and Arin play for keeps in a high-stakes battle between regions within a high fantasy world. We get relief from the romantic frustrations that owned the second book before the real battle commences. But who will win? Will author Rutkoski give us the ending we crave, or will she play for the bad boys and decimate our heroes?
Summary and spoiler alert for the first two books: The Winner’s Curse set the stage with a fantasy world of kingdoms and imperialism. Young Kestrel, daughter to General Trajan who leads the Valorian military, lived in a Valorian colony – the conquered land of Herran. The Herrani had become slaves to the Valorians and Kestrel had just purchased a new one off the auction block, a young man named Arin. Having music in common, they got along – more than they should’ve. But Arin used her to extract strategic military information which he sent to rebel forces, and they managed to overthrow Valorian rule. Many were killed but he saved Kestrel when he realized how much he loved her at the last moment. Feeling betrayed, she escaped to find her father, and the Valorian army comes down upon them. Kestrel stopped the massacre by promising to marry the emperor’s son in exchange for permitting sovereignty to the Herran people.
In The Winner’s Crime, Kestrel’s wedding date approached while she surreptitiously worked as a Herrani informant, unbeknownst to Arin, to help the nation of Herran survive when it seemed that the emperor was intent on breaking the agreement and peace. Kestrel was still in love with Arin, but couldn’t let him know and instead tried her best to make him think the opposite – to protect him. It was a bitter read of misunderstandings and broken hearts for the entire book. But when Kestrel cracked and wrote a love letter to Arin, it was discovered by her own father and she was sent to a work prison – a fake death to be announced.
In The Winner’s Kiss, we feel Kestrel’s pain from the beginning. She’s lost everything. Now in prison where she’s drugged day and night and forced to mine, she’s gone from Valorian princess to captive slave. But worse, she’s lost Arin and her father. It seems that everything she has done has been for naught, but the betrayal by her own father, a man she loves dearly, is the worst kind of pain. How could he choose the emperor over his own daughter? And Arin, never having received the letter she wrote, probably still hates her after all the lies she told him during their last conversation – a conversation where she ended all hope of requited love.
Meanwhile, Arin has managed to create an alliance with the eastern nation of Dacra by giving them a weapon they could use against the Valorian Empire: guns – a new creation contrived by his own hands. While they plan and plot together, his mind constantly veers toward Kestrel. He was continuously deluding himself, so he thought, about her hidden virtues, tricking himself into believing that everything she had done was for him, because she loved him. But when he last confronted her, she practically laughed at him. Even knowing that Kestrel had eloped and sailed off with her new future emperor, he still can’t help thinking about her – hating her, loving her…
When he hears that Kestrel is dead, something doesn’t seem right. The story about the sudden elopement, honeymoon, and a strange sickness doesn’t add up. Then Arin remembers the messenger who was sent by a woman in a prison carriage. No name, no message, only a moth – the symbol of the Herrani informant, was dropped into the messenger’s hands. When Arin prodded the messenger to describe her hand (since he couldn’t see her face), Arin is convinced it’s her. But a month has gone by – will she still be alive in a death camp?
She is and Arin rescues her. But there’s one problem – she doesn’t remember who he is. Kestrel doesn’t remember anything because of the drugs.
Although she can’t remember much, Kestrel is still Kestrel.
She looked again at the missing nose. The slitted, reptilian nostrils. “Did they do that to you?”
He smiled with his teeth.
Testing the truth of it as she spoke, Kestrel said, “I knew they did that to runaways. I don’t remember seeing it happen.”
You might not have. You were a lady. Part of privilege is not having to look at ugly things.”
“You’re not ugly.”
“What a sweet little liar you are.”
“Except when you smile. You make yourself look like a grinning skull. You do it on purpose.”
“Not so sweet, then”
“Not a liar.”
Kestrel faces a long recuperation and her memories come back slowly one after the other. When she finally remembers what her father did – the Valorian army is going to suffer the wrath of Kestrel and her ingenious ways of strategy and cunning. They have no plans to save Kestrel’s father. She wants him dead.
The Winner’s Kiss starts out great and then it hits a slow spot. It takes a little too long for Kestrel to recover her memories and for much of the book, we are given a recap as Arin explains things that have happened bit by bit. But when Kestrel finally gets all the pieces back in order, the book ramps up once more and we finally see Kestrel and Arin’s love blossom. It was about time. That romance took far too long for it to ‘happen’. The scenario was similar to New Moon in the Twilight series when Edward forsakes Bella because he thinks he’s putting her life at risk by being around. Actually no – it’s not similar – it’s the same.
The real pain felt most keenly at the end of the second book and throughout this book was the betrayal by Kestrel’s father. She’d always felt protected by him. He loved her, even doted on her. He was terse with her but his heart always seemed to melt and give way to her fancies at the end. So when he had her sent to a death camp – for being in love with the enemy – it created an emotional response for any reader. If you didn’t respond to that pain, you’re either dead or emotionally compromised.
Not everything is tied up at the end. I won’t divulge what happens to General Trajan – but what happened to Jess, her best friend? The last we heard, she was being drugged and she had turned her back on Kestrel, blaming her for her brother’s death. She isn’t mentioned once in this book when she had larger roles in the previous two. We never hear from Jess again. This was a loose end that I wished we had been able to see wrapped up – in any way.
The Winner’s Kiss is a sweet end to the trilogy and I’m currently in the throes of series-completion bliss.