The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski is a stunning, fast-paced trilogy loaded with action, political intrigue and romance. Taking place in the conquered territory of the Empire, The Winner’s Trilogy follows the stories of Kestrel, the daughter of the General who conquered the Herrani people, and Arin, a Herrani slave who seeks to reinstate his once proud people as the rulers of their own lands.
The Winner’s Curse
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love… They were never meant to be together. As a general’s daughter, seventeen-year-old Kestrel enjoys an extravagant and privileged life. Arin has nothing but the clothes on his back. Then Kestrel makes an impulsive decision that binds Arin to her. Though they try to fight it, they can’t help but fall in love. In order to be together, they must betray their people . . . but to be loyal to their country, they must betray each other. Set in a new world, The Winner’s Curse is a story of rebellion, duels, ballroom dances, wicked rumors, dirty secrets, and games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.
The Winner’s Curse immediately caught my attention with it’s dark, complex society of slaves and rulers; especially since Kestrel immediately appeared opposed to the practice of keeping and buying slaves, despite her father’s position and her otherwise deference to the social order. She ends up buying Arin not because she needs a slave, but because of her love for music, because the slaver, Cheat, says that Arin can sing. Kestrel is a study in opposites – small defiances hidden by general submission. Kindness hidden by a cold, hard demeanor. Rebellion hidden by a stoic facade. Arin, for his part, is a dashing and dark slave with a bucket-load of secrets, the least of which is his association with the Herrani rebels. However, he and Kestrel quickly become fast friends, and are evidently leaning towards being something more when Arin becomes party to the ultimate betrayal – a rebellion that seeks to destroy Kestrel’s way of life. As Kestrel struggles to stay alive, and Arin struggles to regain her trust and prove his feelings for her, the two find themselves at impossible odds, with impossible decisions to make.
As individuals, I really enjoyed both Kestrel and Arin’s characters. However, what was even more satisfying was the fact that they didn’t simply fall in love and run away – they stayed beholden to their responsibilities, and Rutkoski made it quite clear that their was no easy way out of their predicament – forcing Kestrel to leave Arin behind, despite her own personal interests, and breaking Arin’s heart.
I also enjoyed Kestrel and Jess’ friendship – strong, female relationships are so rare in Ya Fantasy! However, I was quickly disappointed when Kestrel pushed Jess away (in favour of Arin). Rutkoski somewhat redeemed the friendship through Kestrel’s determination to save her friend, but the damage was done, and I no longer felt any real attachment to their friendship, since it is evidently as flimsy as the wind.
Overall, The Winner’s Curse was a solid start to the trilogy, introducing strong characters, significant conflicts, and drawing the battle lines quite clearly. I was quite interested to see where Rutkoski would take Kestrel and Arin, and could barely wait to pick up The Winner’s Crime! (4/5)
The Winner’s Crime
Following your heart can be a crime… A royal wedding is what most girls dream about. It means one celebration after another: balls, fireworks, and revelry until dawn. But to Kestrel it means living in a cage of her own making. As the wedding approaches, she aches to tell Arin the truth about her engagement: that she agreed to marry the crown prince in exchange for Arin’s freedom. But can Kestrel trust Arin? Can she even trust herself? For Kestrel is becoming very good at deception. She’s working as a spy in the court. If caught, she’ll be exposed as a traitor to her country. Yet she can’t help searching for a way to change her ruthless world . . . and she is close to uncovering a shocking secret. This dazzling follow-up to The Winner’s Curse reveals the high price of dangerous lies and untrustworthy alliances. The truth will come out, and when it does, Kestrel and Arin will learn just how much their crimes will cost them.
Following the events at the end of The Winner’s Curse, Kestrel finds herself tied up in the Empire’s twisted court without a friend in sight, while Arin struggles to support his people against the growing oppression of the Empire. Kestrel is unfamiliar with the games at court, but she refuses to concede defeat – even if it means sacrificing her own freedom and happiness to do so. Arin, for his part, isn’t ready to give up on Kestrel, believing that there is more to her decisions than he understands. Both quickly find themselves drowning in a game they don’t understand, up against impossible odds and daunting dangers. Then, Kestrel discovers a shocking secret that changes everything – even her own allegiance.
While I didn’t love The Winner’s Crime as much as a loved The Winner’s Curse, it was certainly a well-written book, riddled with the same political intrigue, romance and adventure as its predecessor. Unfortunately, as I had suspected, Kestrel and Jess’ friendship all but vanished in this book, with Rutkoski completing dropping the narrative of a female friendship. But Kestrel’s loss of Jess’ friendship was more than that – it symbolizes her fall from grace, her choice to turn her back on her people, who she now understands to be wrong. Kestrel and Arin’s romance/relationship was also complicated in this one – it was pretty much non-existent, pining for one another and Arin’s outbursts not included. Kestrel’s choice, and her subsequent fate at the end of this book lead me to believe there’s more to come for the two star-crossed lovers though. Finally, I just wanted to add that I was glad that Rutkoski avoided the love triangle trope here- she had the opportunity to throw it in, what with Kestrel’s imminent marriage, but instead chose to have everyone remain faithful to their existing relationships.
Overall, The Winner’s Curse was a good book; Rutkoski avoided some cliche YA tropes, while creating an engaging plot filled to the brim with intrigue and danger (3.5/5).
The Winner’s Kiss
War has begun. Arin is in the thick of it, with the East as his ally and the empire as his enemy. He’s finally managed to dismiss the memory of Kestrel, even if he can’t quite forget her. Kestrel turned into someone he could no longer recognize: someone who cared more for the empire than for the lives of innocent people-and certainly more than she cared for him. At least, that’s what he thinks. But far north lies a work camp where Kestrel is a prisoner. Can she manage to escape before she loses herself? As the war intensifies, both Kestrel and Arin discover unexpected roles in battle, terrible secrets, and a fragile hope. The world is changing. The East is pitted against the West, and Kestrel and Arin are caught between. In a game like this, can anybody really win? The Winner’s Kiss brings a stunning conclusion to the irresistible romance between Kestrel and Arin and the crippling war that has torn about their world in the Winner’s trilogy, by Marie Rutkoski.
Kestrel is trapped, and slowly losing herself to despair, and a drug designed to destroy her. Arin is aimless, fighting a war without any real cause, oblivious to the fact that Kestrel is slowly slipping away – soon, the rumours of her death won’t be exaggerated. After what seems like an eternity of willful ignorance, Arin realizes the truth and races to save Kestrel, only to find her mind seemingly destroyed and her memories gone. As Kestrel tries to piece together her life, and fill in the holes in her life, Arin loses himself, piece by piece, as he gives himself to the war, and to the girl who barely remembers him. It’s breathtakingly sad, even heartbreaking, to see the two finally together, but with a seemingly impossible void between them.
However, as Kestrel heals, she slowly finds her way back to Arin, who would do anything to help the girl he loves regain herself, even if it means losing her. But there are secrets – forgotten by Kestrel – that even Arin doesn’t know. Soon, the two find themselves in the heart of the war, plotting the downfall of the Empire, while all the while, Kestrel’s memory slips back into place, and she must make some difficult decisions.
I loved how sweet Kestrel and Arin’s relationship was in The Winner’s Kiss. Right from the moment he rescues her, Arin is willing to do anything Kestrel needs, even if it means giving her up. He’s primarily concerned with her well-being, pushing his feelings for her aside in order to make sure her needs are met. Then, as Kestrel’s memories start to return and the two drift together, Arin is hesitant, and sweet, but still willing to give Kestrel the time she needs to find her own way, rather than forcing his feelings upon her.
Overall, The Winner’s Kiss was, at its core, a story about love and finding oneself – the war was more of a side story in comparison. However, like its predecessors, The Winner’s Kiss did have lots of political intrigue and action, only this time, they weren’t the guiding motivations behind the plot. I enjoyed seeing these two selfless characters finally be selfish, and make decisions for themselves, rather than for the ideals of their people (5/5).
Overall, The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski is certainly worth the read. It’s got everything you could want – political intrigue, romance and action – all balanced quite wonderfully, and woven into a complex, but not confusing plot that will leave readers wanting to know how it all ends. So if you haven’t read it yet, it’s time to pick up The Winner’s Curse and give it a try!