& Review: The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski. Publisher: Bloomsbury March 2016

The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski. Publisher: Bloomsbury March 2016

Re-release of the second installment's cover

Re-release of the second installment’s cover

The Book Itself: Both paperback releases, and again, I like the pretty dress one more! It may be overdramatic. It may be one of those pretty-girls-sell-books kind of pictures which I actually tend to dislike, but I think it does a good job of representing two facets to Kestrel’s personality: the fierce fighter and the girl who has to wear fine fashion for life in the court. The cover on the right…just looks like a mysterious woman who likes to wear cloaks.

**If you intend to read this series, even reading the synopsis of the plot, below, will give you a couple spoilers. So go out and read the first book before you continue here!

My Review: A royal wedding is what most girls dream about. It means one celebration after another: balls, fireworks, and revelry until dawn. But to Kestrel it means living in a cage of her own making. As the wedding approaches, she aches to tell Arin the truth about her engagement: that she agreed to marry the crown prince in exchange for Arin’s freedom. But can Kestrel trust Arin? Can she even trust herself? For Kestrel is becoming very good at deception. She’s working as a spy in the court. If caught, she’ll be exposed as a traitor to her country. Yet she can’t help searching for a way to change her ruthless world . . . and she is close to uncovering a shocking secret. This dazzling follow-up to The Winner’s Curse reveals the high price of dangerous lies and untrustworthy alliances. The truth will come out, and when it does, Kestrel and Arin will learn just how much their crimes will cost them.

You know how a lot of book series’ second installments are really just bridges to the final, no-holds-barred melee that is the last book? Not The Winner’s Trilogy. The Winner’s Trilogy eats those books for breakfast. And then dices them into tiny pieces, kind of like how your heart will feel after reading the ending of this one, The Winner’s Crime.

For one thing, this second installment gets decidedly darker. You can feel Kestrel’s unhappiness on every page, her desperation to get out of the situation she is in, and the despair at having no options to do so. Add to that all the conflicted, twisted feelings about admitting her lurve for Arin or being a good general’s daughter and staying put where she is, and this book had be turning page after page to see if it would come to the conclusion I wanted it to.

It’s got its fair share of tropes overused in young adult fantasy literature: the starcrossed lovers who share steamy make-out sessions when they shouldn’t, oversweeping and anguished displays of interior dialogue or emotion (like this gem: “Arin hadn’t fallen asleep on the deck of his strangely still ship, yet, it felt as if he’d been dreaming. As if dreams and memories and lies were the same thing.” Oooookay Arin, you drama queen…), cliffhanger endings, and scenes whose literal only purpose is to stab you right in the feels.

But if it’s done well, meaning if the writing and characters and character arcs are compelling to me, I don’t mind all that. And I thought The Winner’s Crime did it all very well. We see both Kestral and Arin gain more agency: they become more powerful characters to me, more in charge of what they are doing. This is especially true in Kestrel’s case, because she’s in a position where she feels powerless, and yet she still tries to keep the parts of herself alive that she admires, she tries to – and I am literally cringing as I begin to type this – stay true to herself. And sometimes that doesn’t work, and there are always consequences when her every move is watched: any time she and Arin are in the same scene, there are vultures around them, ready to rip them apart (not literally).

And it’s those consequences that are really drove me to read further. In so many romance-y YA books, two special snowflakes find each other, fight against and beat countless “insurmountable odds,” and live happily ever after. Kestrel and Arin are a dangerous combination: they are not supposed to be together. They are not supposed to fight against the system. And they do. And this book frames what happens when they get caught. Non-spoiler alert: it ain’t good.

I will say that I’m not liking the development of some of the secondary characters. Which is to say that there is none. Remember Kestrel’s best friend and her brother, Kestrel’s maybe-other-part-of-the-love-triangle, Jess and Ronan? Basically thrown away here. Jess gets pissed and excommunicates her former friend. We see Ronan for exactly one scene, and then the rest of this story is summarized to a couple of numb paragraphs. And then that’s it. They aren’t in the rest of the book, or in the rest of this series. While Kestrel and Arin as characters are growing, it would be nice to see how other characters grow or change, or don’t grow and change around them. Maybe Jess became a hateful enemy. Maybe Ronan tried to reach out again, but having them drop off the face of the story felt abrupt and stilted.

The Winner’s Crime does set up a lot for the third book. So in a sense it is a bridge to the series’ big finale. But it’s one of those ominous bridges that is harrowing to cross, maybe with an ogre underneath (insert clumsy bridge analogy here). It kept up my attention and affection for the series leading into the end.

My Grade: A


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