Synopsis from Goodreads:
Some kisses come at a price.
War has begun. Arin is in the thick of it with untrustworthy new allies and the empire as his enemy. Though he has convinced himself that he no longer loves Kestrel, Arin hasn’t forgotten her, or how she became exactly the kind of person he has always despised. She cared more for the empire than she did for the lives of innocent people—and certainly more than she did for him.
At least, that’s what he thinks.
In the frozen north, Kestrel is a prisoner in a brutal work camp. As she searches desperately for a way to escape, she wishes Arin could know what she sacrificed for him. She wishes she could make the empire pay for what they’ve done to her.
But no one gets what they want just by wishing.
As the war intensifies, both Kestrel and Arin discover that the world is changing. The East is pitted against the West, and they are caught in between. With so much to lose, can anybody really win?
My Thoughts on The Winner’s Kiss
The Winner’s Kiss nearly killed me. Here’s a piece of advice. Don’t read this book in public. Because you will be unable to contain your random squeaks of terror. I chose to finish The Winner’s Kiss in an airport. I’m pretty sure people thought I was batshit crazy because I was literally squeaking trying to contain the fact that I wanted to screech and flail my hands around. I considered befriending the person sitting next to me and word vomiting all of my feels at them. But I didn’t feel like getting detained by the TSA for being a Class A Weirdo so I held it all in. And holding it all in almost killed me.
This book was heart-wrenching. If you’ve read the first two, you know how The Winner’s Crime ended. I honestly don’t know how you guys survived the wait. Because that was just cruel. I’m having trouble thinking of coherent thoughts on this book so I’m going to make a list of all the things I loved.
Class System Struggle
I’ve always loved books featuring caste systems and hierarchy. I love seeing the underdogs struggle and fight to free themselves. Something I loved about this book was how raw and honest the Herranis’ journey was. They fought to be free and then once free, they almost died again. They have moments of fear, moments of thinking it would be easier and safer even to go back to the days of slavery, but people like Arin have burning flames of hope and drive within them and they encourage their brethren. They tell them that it’s not okay to be oppressed. And they demand they stand up and fight. This is always such a beautiful thing to me. Seeing the tenacity of humans. The resilience.
The human spirit and instinct to not only survive, but thrive is a beautiful thing.
It’s not easy. It’s scary. But they continue to fight because they know that a life of slavery is no life at all. This was an underlying theme throughout the entire series, but I really think it came to the forefront in The Winner’s Kiss.
Forbidden Romance/Breaking Down Class Barriers
Forbidden romance is always so enticing to me and this has to be one of my top OTPs (one true pairing). Arin and Kestrel’s relationship is hard. All relationships are hard, but theirs was even more difficult given that Kestrel is Valorian – the race that dominated the Herrani and forced them into slavery – and Arin is Herrani. The class distinction between the two of them has never been an issue, but to the outside world it’s a difficult relationship to accept. And of course, that puts a strain on their relationship. People lie to both Arin and Kestrel throughout the series to cover up their true feelings. The world is against them and yet, their love never dissipates. It’s a strong, steady, burning flame. They overcome every obstacle to get to each other and to stay together and I loved the fight that each of them put up. I also loved that their love was an example to others that not all Valorians are the same bloodthirsty, ruthless breed the General is.
Kestrel & Arin are one of my top OTPs because their love never gives up even through the worst trials.
Starting with Kestrel and Sarsine, Arin’s cousin. Sarsine never seemed like the type that would accept a Valorian. Which is why I loved watching this friendship grow so much. It was tentative at first. Sarsine was a bit cold and you could tell that she didn’t trust Kestrel. But slowly she realizes that Kestrel is different. And Kestrel is amazed at the kindness Sarsine shows her. For a while, Sarsine is the only person Kestrel trusts. I think both Sarsine and Kestrel learned a lot while becoming friends.
And then you have Arin and Roshar, the eastern prince. First of all, Roshar was such an epically amazing character addition to this story. He was one of my favorite characters in The Winner’s Kiss and I’m only sad that we didn’t have him in the first book. Arin & Roshar’s friendship grew exponentially in this book and I absolutely loved the bromance going on. Another BROTP for me to add to my list. (The first ever BROTP was Darrow & Sevro from Red Rising.) I loved that Arin really didn’t trust anybody, but he trusted Roshar. Plus Roshar just made everything more fun. He was hilarious and I still love that he named his baby tiger Little Arin and brought him along to Herran.
The unlikely friendships between Kestrel and Sarsine & Arin and Roshar were perfect.
And I can’t forget to mention Verex and Risha. Verex, the emperor’s son is so amazing. I loved the role he played in this book so much. I especially love that he wasn’t forgotten about. I actually didn’t really expect to see him in this book because I thought he had served his purpose in The Winner’s Crime, but nope. Marie Rutkoski was not done with him. Verex had a definite purpose to serve in The Winner’s Kiss. I loved seeing him go from a quiet, timid boy who just wants to stay out of his father’s way to someone who was willing to make his own decisions. And Risha, the badass eastern princess was awesome. I loved the relationship between her and Verex and the budding friendship between her and Kestrel. It was definitely a tentative friendship, but I think that it will continue to grow. I picture Risha teaching Kestrel how to fight and Kestrel teaching Risha how to play Bite & Sting in the future.
Action and Plot Twists and OMG Moments
Remember when I said I was making squeaking noises in the airport? That was because there so many “holy shit” moments and I just could not. Not a dull moment in this book, ladies and gentlemen. There was nonstop action and intrigue. Tension was high the entire time. The war is at its climax here and everything is either going to fall apart for the Herrani or they’re going to come out on top. Of course it’s not an easy fight. I loved how realistic Marie Rutkoski made things. She did not make it easy for this ragtag band of Herrani soldiers to win. There were major setbacks. There were hard defeats. There was death, bloodshed and pain.
But there wasn’t just violence. There was also strategy. We got to see that sharp mind of Kestrel’s once again and see her plot against the Valorians and the emperor. Kestrel is just so freaking smart and that doesn’t go away here. She does get more daring by riding into battle, but she’s still not good there. I love that Marie Rutkoski stayed true to this. I was a little worried after the whole cover change debacle that maybe she turned Kestrel into more of a warrior to fit in with current trends, but that wasn’t the case. Kestrel rides into battle because she wants to help, but she’s still not good at it and is a much better strategist.
Okay this review is officially way too long and if you’ve made it this far, congratulations. This series is epic. Amazing messages, a kickass plot, characters that will make you fall in love with them and a romance to make you swoon. It really is perfection. If you haven’t started The Winner’s Kiss yet, you need to so you can binge read the whole series. Feel the pain with the rest of us and then the joy at this perfect ending. The Winner’s Kiss was incredible and I will definitely be rereading the series in the future.
Have you read The Winner’s Kiss yet? Did you like the ending? What was your favorite part of the series? For me, it was truly the characters. They were all amazing and I consider them friends.