It is finally over!!! And what a ride it was! This series is one of the few where the end leaves me relieved as well as sad. Ideally, this is exactly how one should feel when finishing a series. You come to know and care about these characters over the course of the series and to finally bid them adieu is always a sad affair.
The Winner’s Kiss was perfect if a little frustrating. Marie Rutkoski takes her time as she did with the two previous instalments. She builds the atmosphere and not just the physical aspects. She gives scenes a weight that most authors would not always bother with. This series is not fast-paced, it is slow but never dull and never monotonous. It keeps the reader on their toes, always guessing about what will happen next and what the characters’ next move will be. Rutkoski never makes things easy for the reader. You will often think that you know what will happen next and be wrong but not regret it because what does happen often surpasses your own expectations.
One of the strongest suits of the series is how well written it is. As I mentioned earlier, she takes her time with building the atmosphere. She doesn’t hurry and as a result, the pace is easy and almost laid-back. But it is so laden with tension that it never feels easy and laid-back. There are moments when the situation is so tense that it is hard not to take a peek ahead to get a sense of just how things will play out. The series is also beautifully written and that in itself should be incentive enough to read it. If you enjoyed reading Leigh Bardugo and Laini Taylor, then this is right up your alley, although Taylor tends to be heavier and more ornate in her writing style.
Now, as far the characters are concerned, they are all superb. Everyone from the evil and despicable Emperor to the funny and not-always reliable Roshar are wonderfully realised and written. Case in point, the crown-prince Verex or even Risha, the hostage princess from the East. We don’t spend a lot of time with either of them and yet they both have a lingering presence even after the series has concluded. You don’t forget about them and they don’t get lost in the sea of secondary and peripheral characters. You get a real sense of who these characters are beyond their names and superficial characteristics; Verex’s kindness and Risha’s core of steel.
What I also liked about this series is how complex the characters are. Take for instance, Kestrel’s father, General Trajan. It would be easy to hate him and you do, but it is tempered by the fact that there is more to the man than what you see. He does love his daughter but he is weighed down by his expectations of her and his sense of betrayal when she doesn’t comply. It is unfair and unreasonable and yet it is realistic. He sees his daughter as an extension of himself and his own ambitions and not a person in her own right with her own wants, needs and ambitions.
It is hard not to love Arin. He is meant to be the more likeable of the two main characters. He is kind, straightforward tries to be there for the people he cares about. He is open and demonstrative about how he feels. And while his thick-headedness drove me up the wall in the previous book, Arin in Winner’s Kiss is far from that insecure, love-sick boy. He is the same at his core, but it is tempered by his experiences.
Then there is Kestrel who was my favourite character in the series. She was the brains of the operation, the strategist. She makes the tough choices, the unpopular choices and bears the brunt of those choices’ consequences. In the beginning of the book, she is in a tough spot and even gives up but once she gets out, her resilient spirit rears up again. She hates being helpless or being dependent on someone else. She is resilient in the truest form of the word. She is pragmatic and practical in a way most other characters in the book are not. I loved how logical she was, always strategising and weighing all with alternatives, seeing opportunities where others only see obstacles. I loved how sharp Kestrel’s mind was, I loved that she was clever and cunning and it was never a liability or portrayed in a negative light, it was always an asset and one that was highly sought-after.
The other thing that made me absurdly happy (and equally frustrating) was how long it took for Arin and Kestrel to come together and Kestrel finally telling Arin how she felt about him. I was happy that it took long because it gave Kestrel the chance to be her own self again. She took her time to ground herself in her own skin. And also find out who she is and not someone else’s idea of who she was. It also made sense that she would be reluctant to embrace how she really felt about Arin when you think about what her father did. She told him she loved him and he still did nothing as she dragged away to the mines in the Tundra. He never interfered, never stood up for her, didn’t try to protect her. She was wary of feeling that strongly about anyone, because it was akin to handing over the reins of her life to someone else where they held all the power and she had none. She had to come to see her feelings for what they were on her own or she would never trust them. And I love Arin for giving her that time and space to doing that and never giving the impression that he was doing her a favour or some great service.
The other characters are just as worthy of note. I loved Roshar. I loved that he was ambiguous and lied more often than not, you never knew if he was being honest or not or just what his game plan was. I loved that in his own way, he always loved Arin. I loved Verex for wanting to do the right thing but never having the courage to do it and trying to help Kestrel despite that. I loved Risha, for loving the home she was raised in and still mourning the loss of what could have been, or Sarsine who offered Kestrel her friendship even when she didn’t have to and offering true companionship to both Arin and Kestrel. I even loved the emperor because he was a true adversary, one who was just as wily and cunning as Kestrel and perhaps the one person who could possibly outplay her.
The other thing that was awesome about this series was just how gender positive it was. The women were all fully-fleshed out characters. They were flawed and they were strong with their own unique brand of strength. I also loved that more often than not, the women were the ones you had to watch out for. They were not damsels and they were not defenceless.
The Winner’s Kiss, in fact the whole trilogy is one of the best I have come across because it was consistent and the characters only got better with each instalment. Just when you thought that you finally had it all figured out, Rutkoski threw in a spanner that had you scratching your head. The Winner’s Trilogy is truly well-written and a pleasure to read and highly recommended for anyone who likes well-written books with complex characters. I loved the series and look forward to revisiting it in the not-so-distant future.