THE WINNER'S CURSE was a great book, with a great plot, and great characters. It was a non-stop thrill-ride of political intrigue, doomed love, and international espionage, all written with far more finesse and flair than you normally find in a YA fantasy novel. Costume fantasy seems to be the new fad in that department, where the "fantasy" aspect of a book serves no purpose other than to be a pretty backdrop for a romance (I am calling you out, COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES).
On the other hand, if ever there was a book that suffered from "second book syndrome" it is THE WINNER'S CRIME. After helping to grant the Herrani their independence, Kestrel is now a caged bird in the Valorian court, engaged to the son of and under the thumb of the vindictive emperor whose vengeance is slow but always cuts straight to the heart, and who sees nothing wrong with torture or harming the loved ones of those who he wishes ill.
The Herrani's independence, meanwhile, is under threat, as are the eastern plains of Dorcan. Arin, the governor of Herran, has his hands full trying to manage his people while also meeting the impossible demands of the Valorians. Despite all this, he also still can't forget his feelings for Kestrel, which fall somewhere on the continuum between love and hate since they're always coming in conflict.
The court intrigue I loved in the first book is still here, which is why this book gets such a high rating. Rutkoski is excellent at drawing out suspense, and creating effortlessly complex political drama that feels realistic (and probably mirrors actual historical events - I'm sure her home bookshelf is crammed with historical nonfiction). What annoyed me the most about THE WINNER'S CRIME is the complete 180 in personality both these main characters undergo. Arin starts doubting everything Kestrel every did for him, ever, and seems to conveniently forget any sort of fondness he had for her, while Kestrel becomes a complete victim and drags her feet about while whining about no one likes her. And nobody does like her in this book: an alternate title for WINNER'S CRIME could just as easily be "Everybody Hates Kestrel." I got really, really tired of all the wangst.
All qualms aside, though, The Winner's trilogy is a good series (so far, anyway). It's darker than most YA geared towards women dares to be, and is smart and surprisingly fierce. Speaking as someone who is a little burned out on "girls wearing pretty dresses engage in a forbidden fantasy affair"-type novels, WINNER'S was a welcome reprieve. If you're a fan of POISON STUDY by Maria V. Snyder, or THE BONE SEASON by Samantha Shannon, you'll probably enjoy THE WINNER'S CURSE.
3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars.