“You talk about her as if she’s made of spun glass. Know what I see? Steel.”
Basically: Kestrel Trajan has been hauled off to a prison work camp when her acts of treason and betrayal come to light. Only after suffering traumatic memory loss is Kestrel freed, but she must endure a virulent war in which both sides hold high stakes for her. Struggling to regain her memories and sense of self, Kestrel faces the reality that she might be the loser, no matter which side wins.
The complex, dramatic, and provocative Winner’s Trilogy comes to a close in Marie Rutkoski’s final installment, The Winner’s Kiss. After that cliffhanger ending in book two, I was dying to know what happens next and whether our main characters, Arin and Kestrel, were truly prepared for the war to come.
Here’s where we left off: Our protagonist Kestrel, daughter of esteemed imperial General Trajan, was betrothed to the crown prince and in line to become queen of an empire. But her heart belonged to a former slave named Arin, who now leads a bloody uprising against imperial rule. Torn between her duty to her country and her feelings for Arin, Kestrel became a spy in secret—betraying the emperor, her people, and most importantly, her father.
The third book begins in the thick of war. Kestrel has been carted off to an imperial work camp in the cold north tundra, sent there by her own father. Arin leads a slave revolution to bring freedom to his people. He’s completely unaware of Kestrel’s whereabouts, and this early in the book, he doesn’t care (the two left things a bit rocky in the last book, considering all the secrets kept). Meanwhile, Kestrel is physically and mentally punished, drugged and watched 24/7, and very rapidly loses her memory.
The series draws heavily from influences like Game of Thrones, but is catered more for young adult audiences (read: less graphic). However, it lacks none of the political espionage, forbidden romance, and intriguing military strategy that makes this series ultimately addicting. A large portion of the story revolves around Kestrel regaining her sense of self. Arguably, the series heretoforth has been about that anyway—Kestrel has always struggled to decide her place, either with the empire and her father, or with the revolution and her love interest, Arin. In the simplest terms, it’s heart versus head. This book turns that internal struggle into a physical one. The reality of war is that people can be destroyed, and the trauma that Kestrel experiences is not to be taken lightly. At the same time, I find myself less attached to her character in this book. She is no longer sure of herself or what she wants. She is no longer the strategist, the web-weaver, the puppetmaster pulling strings in the political and military arenas. Now she can hardly pull her own strings. It’s hard to root for Kestrel at first because she is a different character, and as a reader, we have to be re-introduced to her. She struggles more. She falters. She’s wrong far more than she’s right. As much as I admire the character development at work, this is probably my least favorite of the series. But she does gradually gain her surety and we get to see her scheming mind go to work in time for the climactic battle against the emperor.
War admittedly makes up the majority of this finale. Rutkoski gives impeccable detail to the battle scenes, but is careful to make sure they are lively and don’t drag on. The scenes play out like a movie, with both excitement and strategy at play. I admire the attention given to her war, considering it is the ultimate conflict in her entire series, but I can’t help but feel like the tension lasts forever. War takes time, and there is a lot to set up for the end, but I simply find myself getting a bit impatient!
But that’s not to say it’s not worth the wait. The ending, when it does come, is the sharp, slender blade that cuts the tension with one swift slice. It’s the satisfying bite that I’ve been holding my breath for. The climactic chapter is a choppy back and forth between Kestrel and Arin’s perspectives, but it succeeds in pulling every loose end into a single knot and resolving it with a quick cut.
In the end: Read it! It’s the ultimate game of heart versus head for our heroine, as she must choose a side in the midst of a war where everything is at stake. The thrilling series comes to a close in this captivating finale, and despite a somewhat slow pace, Rutkoski leaves you with a tantalizing story of struggle, secrecy, and sacrifice that you won’t be able to put down.