The Winner's Crime | Thoughts
There's something unforgivable to me about characters who spend the entirety of a book not telling each other the truth for no better reason than for the other's "protection". Last I checked, you were all old enough to fight in battles, plot against kingdoms, fall in love, kill your enemies...and if you're old enough for that, then you're all damn well old enough to make your own decisions on what's best for you. So, to have competent MC 1 withhold fundamental information from competent MC 2 and have this be the only aspect of tension driving the plot does not sit well with me.
Kestrel and Arin pick up in this sequel carrying on where we left them - Arin is now the governor of Herran and responsible for reporting to the emperor of Valoria. Kestrel is trapped inside the capital city, playing (not so convincingly) the glowing bride-to-be of the prince, Verex, who decidedly hates her upon first sight. The emperor is cruel, and the court is everything we'd expect it to be - full of gossip, false smiles, and courtly games. While one of the things I liked most about the Winner's Curse was the focus on Kestrel's knack for strategy, love of games and a good gamble, that aspect was lost in Crime. Most of the focus, even when Kestrel is supposed to be working out the problem of mysterious habits of water engineers and guard captains, instead drifts to Arin. What he's doing, where he is, is he safe, why she can't tell him the truth, how she wants to tell him the truth...the list goes on. The same is true for Arin.
Neither Kestrel or Arin take their circumstances very seriously; the emperor is torturing spies found in his palace, and Arin's second hand man, Tenson - as head spymaster - has positioned himself in the most dangerous spot of all right under the emperor's nose. Yet, despite all the sacrifices being made around them, all either of them can do is put the lives of every one else in danger by being unable to control their feelings.
While there is quite a lot happening outside of the hole these two keep digging, disappointingly most of it fell in the background and was largely overshadowed by their pining. We are given tidbits of clues to a grand mystery, which really if Kestrel had her head on straight, she would have worked out by halfway through.
LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD.
The loss of Jess, especially, was underdeveloped for what it represented. It is a critical moment in Kestrel's life and is a perfect examination of the core issues plaguing all the characters. The girl with whom she's grown up, shared most of her childhood memories, and been like a sister to disowns her, cutting her cruelly from her life when she discovers Kestrel is in love with Arin. Jess is, in a sense, the very epitome of what it means to be an elite Valorian, an example of a society which Kestrel is slowly realizing she disagrees with profoundly. She is, therefore, what finally forces Kestrel to see she cannot be both Herrani sympathizer and Valorian noble. Still, she holds on to the threads of the life she's known, of her people. After Jess, what keeps her holding on is her last tie to Valoria - her father, the fierce and undefeated war general she loves despite knowing he would never understand her sympathies for Herran.
For Arin, after a near-fatal attack at the palace, he stops focusing on Kestrel and travels to the southern isles (is it just me who thinks of Hans of the Southern Isles every time I read that?) in search of an ally to help him defeat Valoria for good. Herran does not have the numbers, and the army's attacks on the eastern plains have stirred the foreign queen's anger. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" so the saying goes. During his stay in the isles, Arin picks up a complicated new friend, Roshar, whom I like very much. Still, the queen will not ally with Herran until Arin gives her something she truly wants (we can all guess what that is). When he is finally able to offer her a new weapon that could change the way battles are fought, the queen agrees and we are all set up for the trilogy's last book.
The ending was excellent, and sufficiently hooked me for The Winner's Kiss...the exposed lies and heart-wrenching betrayals when everything came crashing down were sickeningly satisfying. Fast-paced and well-concluded aside, The Winner's Crime still falls into the "middle book syndrome" category. A lot of filler to get us from point A to point B, and while there were interesting developments for the master trilogy and many of the characters, the constant pining left much more important facets to flail around just barely staying afloat. Even the writing, so well crafted in Curse, unfortunately suffered as if too rushed to clean up loose ends. Many areas felt choppy and oddly shaped - sentences and paragraphs were rushed through without proper development and lacked complete coherent thought. I've considered this could be what Marie Rutkoski was going for, getting creative with sentence structure and traditional style, but all the jumping around seems more likely to me that the editors grew a little lazy.
A necessary read to get you to the fantastic third installment, you just might be bored getting there.
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