It's been a while since I committed myself to finishing one of those accursed YA trilogies, but with The Winner's series, I just couldn't help myself. Book one, THE WINNER'S CURSE, was an excellent book mired in intense political intrigue and a forbidden love story rooted in hatred and class differences. Book two, THE WINNER'S CRIME, was even darker, exploring the terrible costs of war in surprisingly brutal terms for YA. There was more emotional angst than I normally like in my books, but it was (mostly) warranted and didn't bother me as much as it would have in another book. THE WINNER'S KISS, the final book in the series, brings the story arc to a close with complex strategy, high-risk battle tactics, all overshadowed by doomed love.
You can read my reviews of the first two books here and here, since I won't be discussing them too much. THE WINNER'S KISS is a relatively long book and there's a lot to go over.
Book two ends with Kestrel betraying her people, and in the beginning of this book she's already in the midst of reaping the consequences for her treason. It's pretty brutal, and by the end of the book she still hasn't quite recovered from the effects of her punishment. Arin, meanwhile, is still wallowing in his feels and exploring his tentative new alliance with the Dacran people and their scarred prince. He has no idea what has happened to Kestrel; as far as he knows, she's betrayed him, too.
I said in a status update that book one was intense, book two was tragic, and book three just punches you unrelentingly in your feels while laughing at you and calling you a crybaby. As unbearable as the angst and the whining was in book two, it's a lot easier to stomach than the sheer psychological and physical tortures that Rutkoski subjects her characters to in this book. There were passages that would have had me gripping the covers with white knuckles had I been reading a hard copy, and I skimmed over those passages a little more quickly than I should have just to ensure that everything was going to be all right. I was never 100% sure - until the very end of the book, I couldn't be certain that Rutkoski wasn't going to pull a George R. R. Martin.
The political intrigue alone makes this book worth reading. I hypothesized in my review of book two that the author's living room is probably piled high with nonfiction, and judging from her afterword, where she gives thanks to some of the authors whose works she used for research/inspiration, this is probably true. That weighty research really shows in how battles are fought, prisoners are treated, alliances are formed broken, and coups are staged in all of the books, but THE WINNER'S KISS especially. I also want to say that I am so glad that Risha was not killed, because I grew to love her character over the last two books, and some authors have the unhappy habit of killing off people of color in fantasy novels (and fiction in general) to further the development of the main characters.
This was a really great series. It only just ended last year, so I feel lucky that I was able to read all the books right away without having to wait for the new book. There's so much going on in these novels that I'm sure it's very easy to forget the minor details that make the world-building in these books. Richelle Mead's Age of X series was like that for me. I loved the world-building, but since I was receiving them as advanced reader copies, I'd have to wait quite a while between books. They were so detail-heavy that I eventually gave up, because the wait was impacting my ability to appreciate the series. If you're going to start these books, I suggest that you get all three at once, so when you get hooked you can just binge all three without any wait time in between.
I can't wait to see what this author comes up next. Hopefully more fantasy - or maybe space opera. Regardless, she's earned a spot on my "I need it NOW!" list of auto-buy authors.
4.5 out of 5 stars