The Winner’s Kiss (The Winner’s Trilogy #3) by Marie Rutkoski
Publication Date: March 24th 2016 by Bloomsbury Children’s
Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Romance.
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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 brings an end to what has been an emotionally exhausting journey. Valoria and Herran are at war. Arin has taken charge of the Herrani leadership and looks to defend his people from Valorian assault. Kestrel, now finds herself a slave at the work camp following the revelation of her betrayal to the Emperor. Kestrel and Arin couldn’t be further apart physically and emotionally and you wonder how could these two every find a way back to one another. The Winner’s Kiss is a breathtaking conclusion to a highly intense series.
It’s been said throughout the series, but Rutkoski has done a phenomenal job at exploring the intricacies of political and military warfare. The tension is eminent from the start and festers until we come to an explosive collision. The war comes to ahead in this book and while we are treated to some brilliantly crafted battles, this series has always been about its characters.
I’ve read a lot of comments with regards to Kestrel in this book, with some saying she felt like a different character and she does. However, that’s not a bad thing. Kestrel has been through an ordeal throughout this series and the events have had a profound affect on her mentally and physically. Regardless of the plot twit thrown in the beginning of the book, Kestrel would have emerged as a changed person but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a reflection of her character. If anything, The Winner’s Kiss highlighted Kestrel as a well rounded, complex character. We see her at her most vulnerable in this book. Stripped of her identity, Kestrel’s journey is about discovering the person she wants to be. With this loss, we see a much more insecure Kestrel, one who doubts her choices, her ambitions and trust. It’s not the first time we’ve seen her vulnerability but it is the first time where that vulnerability has taken precedence. Her intelligence still shines but this book focuses on Kestrel’s emotional capacity. It’s this book that allows Kestrel to truly understand Arin’s cause; her experiences at the work camp and losing everything she held dear puts them on an even platter because, as morbid as this sounds, they understand the pain, the trauma and the loss as a consequence of the brutality they’ve faced.
Arin also has plenty of highlights in this book. We see him rise as a leader of the Herrani and embrace his role. We also see just how brilliant a strategist he is. The war has come to ahead and Arin is seen implementing effective strategies to foil General Trajan and the Valorians. He comes into his own in this book as a leader and a person. He no longer hides from his past and emotions and embraces them as part of his identity.
It’s safe to say that the romance between Arin and Kestrel has been at the heart of this series and everything comes to ahead in The Winner’s Kiss. Having finally made the connection between Kestrel and the Moth, Arin is faced with a lot of guilt for his hand in Kestrel’s predicament. He deems himself responsible for her pain but it also gives him clarity on just how selfless she is. Kestrel and Arin have both endured a lot at the hands of one another and The Winner’s Kiss is all about reconnecting for them. Honesty is key to this development. This book sees Arin and Kestrel lay themselves bare to each other and after all the secrecy and lies, this honesty was like a breath of fresh air. They didn’t hide from one another and because of that they were able to solidify their connection as equals. Arin is fiercely protective of Kestrel but he never tried to impose himself onto her. He gave her the freedom to make her own choices, even if it put her in danger, and in doing so highlighting his trust in her. Their journey has been a sequence of lies and heartbreak but not once could you deny the depth of their feelings for one another. The Winner’s Kiss reignites that hope that a future together is possible and when Kestrel and Arin finally embrace their feelings and hold on to that possibility of a life together, they become a force to be reckoned with.
We can’t forget about General Trajan. His role in this series has been central to Kestrel’s journey. The relationship between Kestrel and her father has been a highlight of the series. Now firmly on enemy sides to one another, the scope of General Trajan’s betrayal cuts a wound so deep that cannot be healed. It’s an emotionally charged and complex relationship and was beautifully explored.
The Winner’s Kiss is everything you could hope for in a conclusion. It’s emotional and intricately crafted. The political intrigue was genius and Rutkoski’s world building deserves a lot of credit, especially in creating a strong identity for each nation involved. The pacing of this series is on the slow side, but the character exploration more than makes up for it. This series is emotionally intense. It puts you through the wringer. We see the worst of people and the best. More than anything The Winner’s Kiss is a demonstration in how we find hope in the hopeless. It’s a brilliant conclusion to the series and would recommend everyone interested in complex characters and intricate world building to pick up the Winner’s Trilogy.