Title: The Winner’s Kiss (Book 3 in The Winner’s Trilogy)
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Synopsis: 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.
This is such a perfectly done trilogy, it’s simply glorious. As I’ve stated before, this is not an action-packed series, this is more of a reflective character-driven story but these characters are so wonderfully complex that they make my heart hurt. The third book to summarize it simply is a war book. 70% of it takes place at war so there’s strategy mixed with the slow-burn of Kestrel and Arin’s progression.
This review will contain SPOILERS for the previous books in the trilogy.
The story begins right where it left us, Kestrel has been betrayed by her father and she’s imprisoned on her way to a work-camp but she’s placed her hope on a random Herrani man whom she has given a moth in a last-ditch hope that Arin might know the truth and come find her. Meanwhile, Arin is a total mess. At this point our sensitive boy both hates that he cares for Kestrel and hates that she’s used him but a part of him cannot help but feel something is wrong. The story unfolds from there – will Arin rescue Kestrel from the work camp? How the heck will they defeat the empire? Where does the General stand in all of this – is he truly heartless towards his daughter? Kestrel struggles with her father’s betrayal and abandonment the entire book, rightfully so. I think what he did hurts her so deeply she cannot even fathom ever being OK and Rutkoski does not sweep it under the rug. Then there’s also the complexities of Kestrel and Arin’s love story, all the words unsaid but it blossoms slowly as the war rages on.
The entire book is an emotional rollercoaster, things happen that you do not expect, things happen that are brutal and ugly and Rutkoski weaves a truly satisfactory conclusion to the tale of Kestrel, the General’s daughter and her love Arin the slave turned revolutionary. Both are such strong yet human characters and I love that Rutkoski doesn’t pack on the cast like many series tend to do. She keeps it to the basics, but Roshar does shining in the mists of blood, hurt and gore. His humor is always on point and truly stole the show when Kestrel and Arin’s angst got too weepy.
The 3rd book gives us a broken Kestrel, the work camp breaks her and we get to see her take shape from there to find the woman that she will be between the pampered princess and the broken prisoner. In such, she develops much like Arin did as he went from being a rich boy to a slave to now a leader. I really loved this story and I’m left with a desperate thirst for this to be adapted into a film because I think it would be amazing on camera if done right.
After finishing this series and wholeheartedly recommending it I am afraid I will begin judging YA fantasies against this one. To me, this is a 5-star series. It has rich content, world-building, strong yet vulnerable characters, no love-triangle, no insta-love, the right type of angst and high stakes woven with beautifully crafted language. Also, it doesn’t read like YA – adults should side-eye the covers of dancing fighting princesses and just read it, they’re wonderful books from beginning to end.