The Winner’s Kiss – Marie Rutkoski
Publish Date: 24th March 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult, New Adult
Format: E-ARC (from Netgalley)
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 one of my most anticipated reads of 2016, having read and fallen in love with everything from the first two instalments of the series, and I was not disappointed. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of this book from NetGalley (you are literal gods, I cannot thank you enough!) and it took everything I had not to devour The Winner’s Kiss in a day.
This story was so encapsulating, rich and vivid in language and threw you into the thick of things from the first page. But somehow, I paced myself, not wanting it to be over too quickly, I wish I had savoured it even more. It was one of those books that grasp you from the first word and doesn’t let go even after its last.
I absolutely adore Rutkoski’s writing style, it’s intensely descriptive, fast-paced and flows like poetry, quite frankly I envy it. Her world building is strong and fantastically demonstrated throughout the series’ entirety, the plot is dense, full of twists and turns, and the characters are well-rounded, relatable and incredibly human.
The story continues to follow the two protagonists, Kestrel and Arin. One of the things I loved about Kestrel’s character was the fact that she was trained and expected to be a warrior like her father but falls short at the ability. In modern YA literature, a strong female character is most often physically strong, in that they must be able to slice people’s throats and show little emotion, to live up to the stereotype, but in The Winner’s Trilogy, Kestrel defies this ideal and I think it is one of the reasons why she has become one of my favourite protagonists. She is strong, without being physically so, using manipulation and strategy as a pose to combat. “You don’t need to be gifted with a blade. You are your own best weapon.” She shows a range of emotions, not just the stark ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, questions the morality of her actions and what it means to forgive, live with her scars and to love. The messages conveyed throughout this novel and the series are confronting, fresh, and underrated in YA-Lit – dealing with revenge, betrayal, rights, and politics. As well as love – not only romantic love but platonic and unconditional love as well, which is not often explored thoroughly in YA/NA Lit. (which mostly focuses on the romantic/lust.)
The thing I love about the characters in The Winner’s Kiss is that none of them are perfect, they’re all flawed, scarred and true to themselves, richly developed and portrayed by Rutkoski’s talented art, and strongly human. Arin, the male protagonist, continues to show his strength, ambition, delicacy, and kindness throughout the story. His backstory is further explored and drives his actions and desires – and something that wasn’t present in the last books but I felt was a really intriguing, cool addition, was the God of Death and his connection to Arin and involvement of the story. “Open your eyes, Death said. Look, my love, and see.”
One of the other things I was pleased with was how dark The Winner’s Kiss was. It has grown so much from the first book, where the relationship between Kestrel and Arin was a mere attraction and lust, the plot twisting from a drive for the freedom to a war and a revolution, and themes of strategy and gambling becoming more than just metaphors, integral to the storyline. It was full of gore, the brutality of war and focused a great deal on choices and how they affect not only a single character but an entire body and event outcome. It kept you on the edge of your seat, skillfully swapping POV between Kestrel and Arin right at the edge of a cliffhanger, leaving you no choice but to continue reading, plunging you further into the depths of the story. It was dark, there were no lies, if a character did something stupid they paid for their actions, it was very real, intense, and at times horrific and I adored it.
Fans of the series will be happy to know that beloved characters, such as Roshar, Sarsine, Verex, Risha and Arin (the lion) all make appearances in TWK, some of which becoming integral to the ever-thickening plot and all of which growing in character development and demonstrating larger character depth. Everything wraps up nicely, yet the ending remains open in a way that is still satisfying whilst provoking wonder. I keep you thinking about the story long after it’s completed and I have a feeling its one of those series’ that never truly leave you, remaining in a special place in your heart.
I can’t wait for what Rutkoski brings next, she has become one of my favourite authors because of this series and I strongly recommend The Winner’s Trilogy to everyone. It’s such a vivid tale full of strong characters, rich settings and dense plotlines, destroying ideals of characters and what is expected of their emotions, morals and beliefs, whilst simultaneously remaining true to themselves, man, and the human condition.
★★★★★ – 5 stars.