Title: The Winner’s Kiss
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner’s Trilogy, #3
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date: March 29th 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?”
“She fled. She couldn’t really see where she was going, couldn’t look back. Gasps tore at her throat. She stumbled, nearly fell, forced herself forward. She heard the horses stop and that was worse, because the guards must be dismounting now, they were close, and she didn’t want to know this. It could not be over.”
The Winner’s Kiss, the final book in Marie Rutkoski’s Winner’s Trilogy, is an emotional and riveting conclusion to one of my favorite fantasy series. Rutkoski’s protagonist Kestrel has always been one of my favorite lead characters. She embodies strengths we don’t typically focus on when we speak of strong female characters. She isn’t a warrior, though she’s been raised among them; she has no desire to fight, though her country of Valoria prizes itself on its battle-ready philosophy; and she has continually been drawn to the Herrani culture, though she’s been taught that as a conquered nation they are beneath her. Her greatest strength is her capacity to strategize, to outwit and outmaneuver her opponent. But she’s learned that she can’t win every mental battle, that despite her intelligence, sometimes experience outweighs a crafty move. Kestrel has had her entire world ripped out from under her, she’s used others and been used herself. At the end of the second book, Kestrel is betrayed by someone close to her and given into the hands of Valoria’s nefarious emperor. The Kestrel of this novel is not the same Kestrel from the first two books. She’s been betrayed, broken and left completely abandoned. She has been unmade and remade into a woman who, despite the evil done to her, is stronger and more determined than ever. She makes choices that may surprise some readers, but she still remains that stubborn, intelligent girl we met in the first book.
Arin has undergone his own transformation. In the second book, he was torn between leading his people and trying to understand Kestrel’s betrayal, but at the beginning of the final installment, he has committed himself fully to the cause. With Valoria on his doorstep, Arin has formed an alliance with the nation of Dacra. He knows the risk, that the queen may take Herran for her own when all is said and done, but his determination to defeat Valoria and take back what was once lost outweights this risk. I feel that this novel gives the most insight into who Arin is and how the collapse of Herran and the injustices done to his people are echoed in every decision he makes. There is a ruthlessness in Arin that we haven’t seen before, it propels him forward and sometimes gives way to a scary kind of recklessness. He also deals with the unwanted adoration of his fellow Herrani, who believe that Arin has been blessed by the gods themselves. His relationship with the Dacra prince Roshar is equal parts frustrating and rewarding. Roshar understand the politics of leading a nation and pushes Arin to embrace his role. Of all the minor characters, Roshar is by far my favorite and he probably deserves a novel of his own.
Both Arin and Kestrel have faced difficult decisions throughout this series; they’ve continually been torn between each other and their respective nations. I’ve always found that their characters, despite their difference in opinion on various subjects, compliment each other so well. There’s always been mutual respect and equality. There’s a give-and-take aspect to their relationship that doesn’t feel like one is giving more than the other. One of the underlying issues between the two is Kestrel’s privileged life as a Valorian, which comes at the expense of the Arin’s people. Kestrel has grown up in an environment that made it easy to ignore Valoria’s wrongdoings. Arin has never had such a privilege, he has lived everyday with the knowledge of the horrors committed against the Herrani. They taunt him, bring him shame as well as courage. Kestrel’s journey makes it impossible for her to make excuses for her people, she learns to accept her own role in ignoring what was happening around her and it is for this reason that she presses forward.
The Winner’s Kiss is a gratifying conclusion to a beautifully written series. Rutkoski continues to develop her characters, challenging their capacity to remain true to themselves in the midst of adversity and it will be a long while before I recover fully from reading it.