Hardcover, 416 pages
Published March 3rd 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Source: ARC from Publisher
As is often the case with me, I found The Winner’s Crime to be a much more compelling read, exploring in greater depth gender portrayal and court politics than its predecessor, The Winner’s Curse. As this is a review of the sequel, please be aware that if you haven’t started the series, the following will contain spoilers so I’d advise you to not read this review and instead find a review of the first one.
That said, let’s begin this somewhat convoluted exploration of book two in what is reported to be a trilogy.
In the first novel, Kestral is imprisoned by the slave she had bought from the auction block when the Herrani natives lead a revolution against their Valorian colonizers. The conquered people had been suffering under their colonizers for more than a decade when finally they pooled their resources and led an uprising at a timely moment when the colonizing armies were spending their efforts elsewhere without realizing that revolution had been fomenting for a long time in Herrani.
Kestral and Arin, the Herrani slave, fall in love but their love story never has a chance to bloom as they’re on two different sides in a war. Kestral at the end of book one, in an attempt to foster peace, brokered some deals whereby she agreed to marry the crown prince of her country if the emperor let the Herran become an independently-ruled state that paid its taxes to the empire.
The first novel suffered, in my opinion, from a too intense focus on romance that subsumed the larger narrative. In The Winner’s Crime Kestral is in Valoria, in the palace of her future groom, being tutored by the emperor himself on the minute details of ruling a vast empire. The emperor does not have much regard for his son, the crown prince, and has instead pinned his hopes on his future daughter-in-law to rule in his stead in the future.
Arin, the former slave and current governor of Herran, mopes at home, unable to come to terms with what he sees as Kestral’s betrayal. The peace that has come to the Herranis at such cost is shaky because though they are not currently engaged in active war with Valoria, there is a constant threat that the status quo will revert to what it was. When an invitation to attend Kestral’s engagement to the Valorian crown prince arrives, Arin has to decide whether he can handle seeing her again or not.
The novel is convoluted–Kestral’s character is a complex one. She is not the bland miss who never makes mistakes–instead, she is flawed, deeply at that, but she is pragmatic and understands politics and people to a greater extent than Arin who is full of idealistic bravado. Kestral has to make some less than sanguine decisions for the greater good and Arin judges her harshly for that without giving her a chance to explain.
I liked the relationship between the emperor and Kestral. It, too, is complex but there is potential for interesting conflict between them that I am not sure is able to come into fruition by the end of the novel. Arin does grow during the course of the narrative but I felt that the whole “let’s not tell Arin I am actually working for the Herrani” plot twist was too contrived and frustrating. Arin’s gradual disillusionment where Kestral is concerned feels and was unfair but at the same time, I refused to be emotionally manipulated because the maneuvering felt a bit clunky. Of course as Arin becomes less and less fond of Kestral, she becomes more and more desperate for his approval and support and by the end, I just wanted to see some justice served.
However, luck was not on my side as the novel ended on a steep cliffhanger. If you are reading this series, I would advice you to wait until the next book comes out before you read this one. The cliffhanger didn’t make me happy. I like books that tell complete stories or end at a point where my appetite for more is whetted but not to the extent that I am grimly frustrated by the fact that I won’t get anymore until a year passes. I cannot sustain that level of anticipation and often simply stop caring.
That said, the worldbuilding is solid in this one and I particularly liked the time spent creating different kinds of people and their ideologies including their physical looks, religious beliefs and recreational activities. Rutkoski even spends some time talking about the architecture common to Herranis vs. the Valorians (re: the emperor’s stronghold). I liked this attention to the details.
So, if you will excuse the scattered nature of this review, my concluding thoughts are: The Winner’s Crime is a stronger novel than the first one in the trilogy. However, the cliffhanger at the end detracts from what could have been a satisfying installment to the series.