The Winner's Kiss | Thoughts
Funny how we grow accustomed to flaws when we are presented them repeatedly —they become the normal. Like a door hanging crooked on the hinges; the first few times you pass through you say, "That door is crooked, and it shouldn't be." After a while, you pass through and don't even notice it anymore—the door is now supposed to be crooked.
Then you come across a door that hangs straight, and swings smoothly on its full arc, and it reminds you, "Damnit, that other door is crooked!"
This is how I felt upon completing The Winner's Kiss. As if the last tall stack of YA books I read were all crooked doors—no matter how decorative they looked closed, there were flaws marring some aspect or another—and Kiss was that perfectly functioning realization that I'd been complacent with the flaws of others.
So, enough metaphors. Something I didn't think YA novels capable of is a properly formed conclusion. Story arcs are reached, and then BAM it's over in two pages with barely any wrap-up. Here, Rutkoski takes the proper time to end each of her characters' stories, and when I realized I was getting that which I so often ask for in a book's end, I was grinning like an idiot (yes, on my couch, grinning as I read the last pages).
I won't go on too much about the many details that are wonderful about this book. But I'll start with the romance. I wondered how Rutkoski was going to keep this aspect interesting. Clearly we've already done the "will-they or won't they" fall in love theme in The Winner's Curse, and the pining, "We want to be together but can't be together for dumb reasons" in The Winner's Crime, so what is left for book three? I cringed to think it could be the "you lied to me about your reasons and now I don't know if I can be with you" or "because I was in the prison I am too scarred for a relationship" angles. But, I assure you, what Rutkoski delivers does not disappoint.
How Kestrel is broken by the prison in mind an body was a twist I did not see coming, and if I complained of insufficient development in Crime, I got all I asked for in Kiss. Kestrel's father has betrayed her, and her mind has sealed itself away from the pain of remembering what it was like to throw all her love and faults at the mercy of someone who is supposed to love her above all else, and be brutally tossed aside.
Arin loves Kestrel deeply, but he has a war to fight and a people to lead. He struggles with more than just how best to care for her—how to fulfill the demands of his allies for the sake of the cause without giving away all of himself; how, if their campaign is successful, he will stop Herran from moving out from under one oppressive hand just to fall under another.
They are all done being children, and their characters have grown into the type of adults that I rarely see in YA, facing issues that reach deep beneath the surface. And no pretty realization of true love is going to magically fix it all. Both Kestrel and Arin must figure out themselves, face their personal demons, and come to terms with the pain and suffering they've endured in order to move forward, as individuals as well as together. The voices they each hear have me contemplating if this is a common coping mechanism between them. Has Arin truly begun to hear the voice of his god—the god of death—or has he conjured the idea of a cold and hard voice to get him through battle after battle, just as Kestrel hears her father's voice at times of stress and turns naturally to it as a form of comfort and advice? You decide for yourself!
There are two issues I took with the trilogy as a whole, only one of which can I fairly hold the author accountable for. The first, and probably not all in Rutkoski's control, is the cover art. I am annoyed at publishers always thinking a pretty face in a gown on the cover will sell. Throwing a sword in there does not successfully make you stand out from every other YA fantasy novel. These books have so much more to offer than what they imply—honestly I did not pick them up for a while because of the covers (foolish, FOOLISH ME).
The second issue is technical, and plagued me from the very start of Curse. Parenthesis are a tool of the narrator best used only in first person. They convey to the reader, "step out of the story for a moment and note this interesting fact." This method of punctuation does not sit well with omniscient third person narratives, and I would replace each use with the EM dash—a favorite of mine and more appropriate to this POV. ;)
Despite these issues, this book is damn good—as is the trilogy on a whole—offering a fantastic examination of slavery, honor, and the bonds of family, country, and love. If you've been making the same mistake I did, and have been putting them off (or judging by covers), you can cut that shit right now and binge read this trilogy as soon as possible. You're welcome in advance.
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