The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski (The Winner’s Trilogy #3)

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“The Winner’s Kiss” by Marie Rutkoski

4 1/5 out of 5 stars.

After having been discovered as the Herrani spy called the Moth, Kestrel is sent as a prisoner to a Valorian slave camp in the north, where she knows survival will be slim. Any clever plan she might come up with won’t be enough to get her out of the sulfur mines, but Kestrel can’t bear the thought of not trying, because she can already feel herself slipping away in this place, suffocating under the weight of her father’s betrayal and the fear that she has been forgotten by everyone who might have cared for her.

Arin thought that time and distance had erased Kestrel from his mind and heart, but when news arrives in Herran of Kestrel’s imprisonment, Arin realizes just how little his feelings had changed toward her. But after making a daring rescue to bring Kestrel home, Arin finds that being together again is different than he thought it would be, and his desire to protect and earn Kestrel’s trust back is beginning to cloud his judgment, causing him to make mistakes on the war front that he would not have otherwise made. Arin knows that he should put Kestrel out of his thoughts, but what will winning the war mean if he ends up losing her?

With the Valorian Army pressing in on all sides, both Arin and Kestrel fear the perilous choices they will be forced to make during this war, choices that could ruin them and their world forever. But the pieces are on the board and the game has begun, and Arin and Kestrel must play it to its end. One last time…

Wow, I don’t even know where to begin this review. I guess that is just what Marie Rutkoski’s amazing writing style does to me, rendering me speechless when I am actually full of things that I want to say. Time has not made her words any less impacting, because two years ago I said the exact same thing in my review of “The Winner’s Curse.” So much had happened over the course of Marie’s first two books in her beautiful trilogy, which meant that a LOT was riding on “The Winner’s Kiss,” and although I never doubted Marie Rutkoski’s ability to write, I was worried what the last book in “The Winner’s Trilogy” might do to my heart. I was right to worry because this book did hurt my heart at times, but Marie managed to make me love this book amidst the emotional torment; it was brilliant, and I was so happy that the final book in a trilogy/series that I loved was (almost) as good as the first book that had captured my heart. It was so satisfying to read a finale where the characters, whom I loved very much, still felt like the same people I had met in the first book, despite all of the things that they had endured until this point.”The Winner’s Kiss” was great for many reasons, but it was just so amazing to experience the last book in a trilogy and to still feel the same connection to the hero and heroine’s story, despite the time that had passed.

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Kestrel is one of my absolute favorite female characters. I love how Marie Rutkoski has always emphasized Kestrel’s intelligence and her struggle between getting what she wanted and doing what was right, which was sometimes a fine line between one bad thing and another, far worse choice, and how it was not about swordplay or brute force with this female character. Physical dominance was never Kestrel’s forte, so she always chose to outwit her combatants, and I thought that it was so refreshing to see a character who was strong and a force to be reckoned with, but who did not fall prey to the trend of an aggressive female who brutalized her enemies with weapons instead of intelligence. Sorry, but I prefer the spectrum of strong females who beat their foes with wit and shrewd intelligence, and that was who Kestrel was.(One of the reasons why I love the covers of this trilogy so much is because of how they tease a reader with beautiful dress, a clever-looking girl, and an elegantly displayed weapon on their fronts, and everything about them is just perfect for the story that “The Winner’s Trilogy” tells!) I so enjoyed seeing how much Kestrel grew and changed in “The Winner’s Curse,” but what I loved was seeing her attempt to save Arin and the Herrani people from the Valorian Emperor in “The Winner’s Crime.” My heart hurt so much for Kestrel in the second book of this trilogy because of how much she went through, and everything she sacrificed for a people who were not her people and a boy who seemed to no longer believe in her. It was beyond tormenting, especially with the kind of ending that Marie Rutkoski had written in “The Winner’s Crime,” and I knew that my heart was bound for more hurt when I started “The Winner’s Kiss.”

Kestrel’s journey throughout this trilogy has been really interesting and dynamic, and although I still loved her in this book, I felt like she took a bit more of a backseat emotionally; the cause of this was completely valid, so I was okay with it, but I did feel the difference while reading from her perspective. As “The Winner’s Kiss” went on, though, I thought that it was interesting where Marie was taking her book, and I thought that it was cool how Kestrel became a part of the fight in more ways than one; I will always prefer the strength of a clever mind to that which comes on the battle field (with the exception of Wonderwoman!), but I did like the fact that Marie allowed Kestrel to still be Kestrel, while also adding a different dynamic to her heroine and trilogy. Even after all of the events that occurred in “The Winner’s Trilogy” and the growths and shifts in character, Kestrel still remains one of my favorite female characters, and I loved the fact that Marie Rutkoski gave her readers the opportunity to see Arin and Kestrel resolve some of the things built up between them after being apart for such a long time.

Oh, Arin, you finally came back to me.

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“The Winner’s Crime” was an amazing but difficult book to read at times because of how Arin acted, and what he thought about Kestrel at times; Arin’s judgment tended to be clouded by his emotions, especially in the case of Kestrel, and that led to a lot of misunderstandings on his part. I had adored Kestrel in the second book, but I had also felt like Arin, whom I love very much, had slipped away from me for quite some time. But, thank goodness, Arin really came back strong in “The Winner’s Kiss,” and I loved that I got to see a much wider emotional range than just the angsty, insecure Arin who was present in “The Winner’s Crime.” Arin had to fight obstacles of all kinds, even those involving the heart, in “The Winner’s Kiss,” and I liked seeing how he grew even more as an individual as this book progress, and how he had to fight for Kestrel this time around. I fell in love with Arin all over again in “The Winner’s Kiss” and that was one of my favorite things about this book, because I have wanted and waited for it since the ending of “The Winner’s Crime.” Another thing I loved about this book was that I got to see Arin and Kestrel remember their beautiful but broken history together.

I love the fact that “The Winner’s Trilogy” took place over about a year, because I feel like that amount of time helps to validate the things that these characters have endured together and apart. I loved that I got to see my epic couple together in the first book, and then had the chance to explore who they were when forced apart, and was finally allowed the opportunity, after an interminably long separation, to see them work together again in order to defeat the Emperor of Valoria. Their relationship was not rainbows and sunshine anymore, but I loved seeing Arin have to man up and fight for Kestrel while still setting her free, and how Kestrel dealt with the lingering effects of the past few months being in a Valorian slave camp. It was heartbreaking to watch them both struggle, but I was so happy that an author finally had her two main characters working together in the last book; so many authors keep our favorite couples apart in the last books, and it is SO frustrating because the story lines sometimes lose their luster and sparkle due to the ceaseless strain between the characters and the perilous plot lines. Yes, tensions were high between Arin and Kestrel, and so were emotions, but just seeing them together, working on a plan to save Herran and win the war was so great. It was really emotional seeing these beloved characters endure so much pain and heartache, while also knowing that this amazing trilogy was about to end.

It is always so strange saying goodbye to a series or trilogy that has been dear to me and that I have followed for a couple of years. Sometimes there are happy but tearful farewells, whereas others can lead to the kind of goodbye that makes me want to (possibly) chuck the book across the room. Marie Rutkoski’s books, especially “The Winner’s Curse,” have always felt a little different, though, like they have a distinct sparkle that sets them apart from many of the other YA books out there, and they make me think and see things differently. And much like her books as wholes, their endings are also uniquely impacting. The ending of this trilogy was well-done, tied up beautifully and satisfactorily, and once I had finished Marie acknowledgements, I just sat quietly for a little while, absorbing everything that happened in “The Winner’s Kiss.” The end of this trilogy felt very different from other finales, more reflective, and I just sat quietly for a while, flashing back to the first two books and thinking about the amazing journey that “The Winner’s Trilogy” took me on.

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“The Winner’s Kiss” was a very satisfying end to a stunning and unforgettable trilogy. I did find myself wishing for less action and wartime scenes, because I really just wanted to experience the slow-burn emotion of this book without its interference. I don’t need action in a book or movie to keep me interested because I’m there for the characters, for the relationships and the interactions between friends and enemies, and so lots of action sometimes takes away from my enjoyment. I still loved “The Winner’s Kiss,” but I preferred the small pockets of intensity and action that were in the first two books to this book’s half relational/half wartime intrigue.

Obviously the tones of each book are quite different, but what I absolutely love about the evolution of “The Winner’s Trilogy” was how each book let the characters have their “shine” moment: Kestrel and Arin shone beautiful and bright in “The Winner’s Curse” together, “The Winner’s Crime” showed Kestrel to be even smarter and more determined than in the first book, and “The Winner’s Kiss” belongs to Arin because this was the book where I got to see the Arin that I loved come back to me. Each of Marie Rutkoski’s books in this trilogy are so impacting and I love all of them so much for different reasons, but I do not think that many books can compare to “The Winner’s Curse” for me. It was the chapter in Arin and Kestrel’s story that stole my breath and my heart, and it holds a special place in my affection as a reader, despite how good the other two books in this trilogy are. I loved “The Winner’s Kiss” and how it resolved things in such a way that nothing was perfect, but there was hope for Herran and its people, and I also adored the quiet, almost reserved feeling it gave me once I finished it. Marie did a wonderful job, and now that this trilogy is finally over, I am not quite sure what to do with myself…

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