The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner's Kiss by Marie Rutkoski

Title: The Winner’s Kiss
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner’s Trilogy, #3
Pages: 496
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?”

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“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.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

Kernels of Nonsense: Cover Redesign

Kernels of Nonsense (2)Kernels of Nonsense is a bimonthly discussion feature where I discuss various book related topics. I originally had another post planned, but then Friday happened.

Cover redesigning seems like a great idea on the surface. If you’re a publisher. And you’re looking to sell more books. So you think changing the covers might appeal to a wider audience. But if you’re a reader and especially if you’re the kind of reader that takes pride in their book collection, book redesigns can be a nightmare.

Way back when Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken came out, this was the cover. And if you’re familiar with this amazing series, you’d agree that this cover’s whimsical feel does fit the strange atmosphere of the little town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Personally, I love covers that are more akin to illustrations than ones which feature real people (especially when those models do not resemble the characters in the book at all). This happens to be one of my favorite covers ever.

Then the publisher decided it was a good idea to change the covers. I don’t know all the details surrounding this change, so perhaps the artist did not want to do the next two covers, but I do know that when I saw the second book’s cover, I was really disappointed. This new design lacked the kind of personality the story deserved. I would never reach for this book on the shelf to find out more. It’s boring, unoriginal, and tells me nothing about the book. I’ve had issues with covers before and this is probably the one that’s upset me the most, that is until now…

So you’re probably wondering why I suddenly changed my topic for this week’s discussion post and that’s because one of my beloved book series is getting a makeover. Just when the last book is about to be released. And I am not happy about it. The first two book covers (two incredibly beautiful perfect covers) look like this…

…and will now be accompanied by a third cover that looks like this…

When I first saw this, I was upset. If you don’t own the first two books, I can’t properly explain to you how beautiful they are. And so, for aesthetic reasons, I really wanted this last book to feature the protagonist in a similar pose and attire. I’m the kind of bookworm who wants my books to match. I don’t like it when I own one book in a series in paperback and the other two in hardcover (I’m working on accepting this), so something like this is a little upsetting.

And for my own peace of mind, even though this cover doesn’t make the most sense when it comes to the series’ main character, Kestrel, I wanted to believe that the circumstances that occurred at the end of the second book and what happens in the third might explain this stark difference between the first covers and this last one.

But then I had a look at the other two books’ redesign…

Oh, no. No, no, no, no. This is awful. Are these covers beautiful in their own way? Sure. Do these covers show an awesome female warrior you might be interested in reading? Absolutely. Do these covers represent who we know Kestrel to be? Not at all. If you’re familiar with this series, you would know that even though Kestrel has grown up in a society that celebrates war and takes pride in physical strength and skills, she is not a fighter. At least, she isn’t in the traditional sense. For much of the series Kestrel is stuck in an impossible situation and she uses her head to get out of it (or more into it). She has to rely on her mental strengths because she isn’t a warrior, she can’t best anyone in a physical fight. And these covers feel more deceptive, the more you understand about her character.

And then the tweet came. This is probably more upsetting than any cover redesign. After everyone was led to believe that the cover for the last book in this trilogy would be this one, we are now learning that even the hardcover will not retain the original design.

When a blogger asked if the hardcover would still be this one which was revealed not too long ago, @FierceReads had this to say: “The red dress is not happening, we wanted Kestrel to look as bad*** as she is so we thought a redesign was in order!” Everyone was in an uproar. Was this person implying that being in a pretty dress did not equal “bad***”, that in order to be “bad***”, you have to be able to wield a sword? What kind of message is this sending?

But maybe I’m pointing the finger at the wrong person. Another author on Twitter who followed what happened reminded readers that sometimes it’s book store chains that call for cover redesigns because they believe these books won’t sell as well with the old design. This does nothing to make me less angry over the redesigning or the tweet, but it does want me to give the publisher perhaps the benefit of the doubt. I also don’t believe in judging someone solely on one tweet. Haven’t we all had moments where we wish we could take back something we’ve said, either because we didn’t mean it or we didn’t think it fully through?

But this situation does give one pause, making you realize (once again) that society has such a limited perception of what a strong woman should look like. Traditional feminine qualities are still thought of as weak and it is only when a woman embraces traditional male qualities that she can be called strong.

I’m just hoping (and maybe begging) for the publisher to reconsider this change. Not necessarily entirely, but perhaps those readers who prefer the red dress cover can have a chance to purchase this edition of the book instead.

How do you feel about cover redesigns? How do you think publishers should handle them? Are you a fellow Winner’s Trilogy fan who’s in an uproar? Share your thoughts in the comments and let’s discuss!

The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski

Title: The Winner’s Crime
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner’s Trilogy, #2

To stop the Valorian emperor from crushing the rebellion in the Herran peninsula, Kestrel has convinced the ruthless leader to cede the land to the Herrani people in exchange for fealty. To ensure this treaty, Kestrel has agreed to marry the heir to the Valorian throne, Prince Verex. As Kestrel tries to adapt to life at the palace, she quickly discovers the emperor is a skilled manipulator and in this new environment where anyone can be working for him, Kestrel must use her own strategic skills to stay one step ahead. Despite the confining circumstances, Kestel agrees to play spy for a Herran dignitary, but the more she discovers, the closer she gets to being caught and Kestrel may not be the only one who pays for her treachery.

“Kestrel set the soldier back on the shelf. She made certain her voice was clear when she spoke her last words before leaving the room. ‘If you won’t be my friend, you’ll regret being my enemy.'”

Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse was one of my favorite books from 2014 and this sequel is so devastating good, I’m bursting with love. Full of sly characters and mounting tension, The Winner’s Crime is a thrilling story of being caught between your head and your heart. Kestrel has used herself as a bargaining chip to secure Herran’s freedom, but what she doesn’t realize is she’s entered into a dangerous game with the emperor that she isn’t fully prepared for. Every conversation the emperor has with Kestrel is perilous, every word calculated, every question a test. What makes it worse is Kestrel’s situation, she cannot risk telling others, including Arin, and the isolation weighs heavily upon her shoulders.

Arin struggles with Kestrel’s decision while simultaneously trying to find a solution to his people’s weakening economy. The emperor has placed a stringent tax on the Herran people that surpasses their means. Despite their new freedom, most Valorians continue to treat the Herrani with contempt, including their new governor. Arin is desperate to help his people and his frustration is further aggravated by Kestrel’s refusal to help. It is this strained relationship that is the most devastating part of this book. Arin is unaware of Kestrel’s motives behind her future marriage to the prince and Kestrel must convince Arin of her disinterest in order to keep them both alive.

The Winner’s Crime widens our understanding of Rutkoski’s world. We learn more about the Valorians and the leader behind their “Manifest Destiny” philosophy. We also get a glimpse of the land to the east, Dacra, the next territory the emperor is set on conquering. There were a couple of characters whose stories I wanted to hear more about, including the Dacra princess, Risha, who was raised alongside Prince Verex. I’m hoping she gets more page time in the next book. I am really struggling with the knowledge that I’m going to have to wait a year before I find out how this series concludes and may I just say that Kestrel has earned my unwavering loyalty at the conclusion of this book.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

The Friday 56, #10: The Winner’s Curse

The Friday 56The Friday 56 is a weekly blog meme hosted by Freda’s Voice. Join in every Friday, the rules are simple.

Rules:

*Grab a book, any book.

*Turn to page 56 or 56% in your eReader.

*Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grab you.

*Post it.

*Add your (url) post here in Linky. Add the post url, not your blog url. It’s that simple.

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski

“Arin looked bored. Of course he would, as someone with no understanding of the Valorian conversation. Yet Kestrel suspected he would look the same way even if he were following everything said.

And she thought that he was.

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski has one of the strongest protagonist’s I’ve ever come across and has quickly become one of my favorite reads.

From my review:

“The Valorians are a proud people, gifted in warfare and victors of many battles. A decade after ceasing the land inhabited by the Heranni people as a spoil of war and enslaving the survivors, the Valorians enjoy an affluent lifestyle secured by their military prowess. Kestrel, the daughter of famed General Trajan, has little interest in following in her father’s footsteps despite his insistent urging. When Kestrel makes a rash decision and purchases the unruly slave, Arin, she has no idea how her life will change. Kestrel tries to make sense of the pull she feels toward him, but Arin is no ordinary slave and the secret he carries threatens to shatter Kestrel’s entire world.” Read my full review here.