The Winner’s Crime
Spoiler Rating: ALL THE SPOILERS, BEWARE
And yes, The Winner’s Crime is in some ways an improvement on The Winner’s Curse, but in other ways it’s, uh, quite the opposite.
Prepare yourself for a long and ranty letter.
I’ve already reviewed the first book in the trilogy, The Winner’s Curse, but allow me to summarize its plot for you here.
Valorian gentlewoman Kestrel impulse-buys young Herrani man Arin, whose peninsula and people had been conquered and enslaved by Kestrel’s father (a famous general) ten years ago. Kestrel and Arin fall in love, but alas! Arin’s organizing a Herrani rebellion, which ends with almost every Valorian in the Herran peninsula dead.
Kestrel’s held hostage/beloved guest on Arin’s estate until, finally, she leaves to tell the Valorian emperor about the Herrani rebellion. At Kestrel’s begging, the emperor grants Arin governorship of the Herran peninsula, on the condition that Kestrel marry his son and heir. She agrees, and—deciding it’s best if Arin think she’s a coldhearted gold-digger angling for empresshood—returns to tell Arin the good news of her engagement and his governorship. Everybody privately angsts.
On to its sequel, The Winner’s Crime.
Following your heart can be a crime . . .
A royal wedding 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?
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.
And oh hey look, we get a map this time!
I listed a lot of complaints in my review of The Winner’s Curse, including the utter lack of world-building, the unconvincing romance, how passive Kestrel is, and how unrealistic the emperor’s decision was to (1) marry Kestrel to his son, (2) name Arin the new governor of Herran, and (3) allow Kestrel to be the emissary to Herran.
Now I’m giving the author two thumbs up for her attempts to correct (some of) those issues in The Winner’s Crime.
- We learn more about Herrani culture and (in flashbacks) life as a Herrani slave in the first twenty pages of this book than in the entirety of the The Winner’s Curse.
- We’re shown (mostly in flashbacks) significantly more about Arin’s history in this book than in the previous book.
- We’re shown (in flashbacks) actual reasons why Arin fell in love with Kestrel.
- The emperor quickly removes Kestrel from the position of emissary to the Herrani.
It’s like the author read readers’ criticisms about the first book, mulled them over, and applied what she learned to the sequel.
Surprisingly enough, Kestrel and Arin don’t reconcile in this book. (Is that cheering I hear? Why yes, I believe it is.) They spend the entire book hurt and angry with each other, and although both want to reunite and clear up the lies and misunderstandings between them, they’re prevented from doing so by numerous situations beyond their control.
And I loved it: their lies, their arguments, their secret hopes. It was beautiful and so painful (in just the right way) to read.
And oh my goodness I loved Kestrel’s struggle between her desire to do what’s right (help the Herrani people) and her loyalty to and love for her father (who’s wholly devoted to the empire).
This is a realistic and heartbreaking dilemma, and definitely raised the book in my estimation.
Continued Lack of World-Building
Give me more world-building, I’m dying over here.
- What’s the relationship between the emperor, the Senate, and the noble class?
- How powerful is the Senate? What happens if the Senate wants one thing and the emperor wants another?
- Why is everyone in the city betting on the details of Kestrel’s wedding dress? Why does everyone in the city go to one specific bookkeeper to place their bets, instead of the nobles going to a fancy-pants noble bookkeeper, and the middle- and lower-class people going to everyman bookkeepers in their neighborhoods (or neighborhood-equivalents)?
- Can we learn anything at all about the culture of the eastern empire, Dacra? Anything other than “the people wear eye makeup,” “there are canals and tigers around the capital city,” and “the plains to the north are full of nomads”?
- Etc, forever.
World-building continues to be a significant weakness in this trilogy.
I’ll just mention one of the many contrivances that bothered me.
Everyone in the city is placing bets on the color, fabric, design, etc, of Kestrel’s wedding dress, and the winner of the bet will land a fat fortune. For some reason (hint: so the book can have a plot), Arin gets it into his head to ask Kestrel’s dressmaker who has been bribing her for information about the wedding dress. Her answer: almost everyone.
So Arin replies:
Arin then tries to convince his spymaster, Tensen, that this is significant. Tensen’s reaction is basically mine:
(Thrynne, by the way, was a Herrani spy caught trying to eavesdrop on a conversation between the emperor and Senate leader; he was subsequently tortured and killed at the emperor’s orders.)
Arin somehow convinces Tensen to look into the matter of the Senate leader’s bet. And by “convinces Tensen to look into the matter,” I mean “convinces Tensen to convince Kestrel to snoop around about it.”
Through their espionage, they deduce that the Senate leader and the water engineer (who placed an identical bet) have plotted a plot that would harm the Herrani people.
They’re right, of course. But why is Arin so certain the Senate leader’s bet indicated he’d performed a great favor for the emperor? Why is he so certain that the favor involved harming the Herrani people? Why are Arin and Kestrel so devoted to unraveling this mystery, of all mysteries?
I would imagine the palace is thick with mysteries and seeming-mysteries, conspiracies and seeming-conspiracies. Why aren’t they also nosing around a few others that lead to dead-ends? Why didn’t they uncover some “clues” that turned out to not be clues of anything after all?
Their single-minded focus on this one particular mystery, and its perfect payoff in uncovering the emperor’s Evil Plan for Herran, was much too contrived to feel real.
Kestrel’s an Unlikable Idiot
For a character who’s supposed to be (a) sensitive to the plight of servants and slaves, and (b) a cunning and brilliant strategist, Kestrel can be unspeakably bitchy to the people beneath her and consistently fails to consider the possible consequences of her actions.
Both traits are portrayed beautifully early in the book, when her dressmaker (a Herrani woman named Deliah, who is frantically attempting to finish her dress in time for the engagement ball) asks if Kestrel has heard the news:
Dude. Let the poor woman finish pinning a few things to the dress. You already know that the emperor is an Evil Villain who does unspeakable things to the people who fail or disappoint him. What do you think could happen to Deliah if she fails to finish the prince’s fiancée’s dress in time for the ball? Horrible things, that’s what.
But no. Kestrel is too overcome by the prospect of seeing Arin (for the first time in two months) to spare half a thought for a mere servant’s life and well-being.
So off Kestrel runs to meet Arin.
The emperor has repeatedly warned her Hey, I know you love Arin and his people, but you’re going to be empress now, so get your priorities in line. If you so much as blink in Arin’s direction, I can have you both tortured to death.
So what does she do when she hears the Herrani representative has arrived for her engagement ball? She runs barefoot through the palace to meet him, in front of approximately everyone ever, then gets pissy when she realizes Arin didn’t come.
What the hell, Kestrel.
But this isn’t the dumbest (as in holy crap you’re going to get yourself caught what are you thinking) move she makes in the story. It’s one idiotic misstep after another with her, and each one left me aghast.
What’s worse is that the book rarely punishes her for her mistakes.
- Does the entire
palaceempire work itself into a lather over the gossip of her conduct at the Herrani representative’s arrival for the ball? No, it doesn’t.
- Does anyone (other than her best friend) notice that Kestrel disappeared from the engagement ball, and when she came back into the ballroom (a few minutes after Arin arrived, his lips swollen and his face smeared with gold makeup) it was with her hair disheveled and her gold makeup suspiciously faded and smudged? No, no one notices.
- Does anyone overhear her when she and spymaster Tensen are talking in a room full to bursting with courtiers and the emperor himself about what their secret spy code will be, and where they’ll meet to share their secret spy information? No, no one overhears.
The list goes on.
Fortunately, she does get punished for two of her (countless) mistakes. Two is better than none, but good god, I was expecting her to get caught every step of the way, and it boggles my mind that she didn’t.
(It doesn’t actually boggle my mind. Of course she didn’t get caught; the book needed her to not get caught until she’d unraveled the emperor’s Evil Plan for Herran. Excuse me while I melt in frustration and despair.)
The Dumb Continues
To continue on the same vein:
When Kestrel and Tensen were discussing where to hold their secret spy meetings while in a room full to bursting with the courtiers and the emperor himself (no, I will never get over this), Tensen suggests they try the only tavern in the city that serves Herrani. Kestrel shoots that idea down, saying that if the tavern serves Herrani, it also serves the emperor’s spies.
Sixty pages later, when she’s disguised as a palace maid and conducting her idiotic spy business in the city, she runs into Arin. He recognizes her and challenges her to a tile game; if she wins, he’ll leave the palace immediately (which she wants him to do, for his safety), but if he wins, she’ll have to tell him the truth about everything. (He can’t quite accept that she’s the power-hungry courtier she’s pretending to be.)
For some inexplicable reason (*coughsheisanidiotcough*) she consents to the game. He leads her to, you guessed it, the only tavern in the city that serves Herrani.
Remember: Herrani have been the lowest of slaves for the last ten years. They were freed from slavery just two or three months ago. Saying “the only tavern that serves Herrani” is presumably synonymous with “the worst tavern in the city.”
Remember: Kestrel herself dismissed this tavern as a potential Secret Spy Meeting Spot because it’s crawling with imperial spies.
But yeah, sure, the famous empress-to-be (dressed as a palace maid) and the infamous Herrani governor (dressed as himself) go into the tavern to play a game of tiles. The tavern, they discover, is stuffed to the gills, and not just with Herrani:
That’s right. The basest tavern in the city is crawling with nobility and senators. Sure, some high-ranking Valorians might want to go slumming, but not this many.
Nobody recognizes Kestrel or Arin, amazingly enough—even when they stroll in, see that all the tables are taken, and proceed to be as conspicuously rich-and-famous as possible:
Seriously, Kestrel? We’re explicitly told that a palace maid doesn’t make much money. Don’t you think these merchants—or anyone else in the crowded tavern!—will think your behavior is a little unusual for a poor maid?
But wait, it gets worse.
Kestrel and Arin procure a set of tiles to play their game, and proceed to call each other by name and argue IN A CROWDED TAVERN FULL OF COURTIERS AND SPIES about everything that has happened between them. Seriously, look:
(This part of the conversation comes shortly after Arin’s brilliant suggestion that she marry the prince but keep Arin as her lover. Thank goodness she has enough smarts to turn that offer down.)
And do they get caught by any of the dozens of people within easy listening range? By any of the courtiers who should recognize them, or the spies that should perk up at the sound of their names?
No. No, they don’t.
My conclusion: this is so dumb.
A Few Miscellaneous Complaints
This letter is ridiculously long, so let me just mention a few more points:
- We don’t learn the crown prince’s age until page 335; he’s eighteen, but his behavior up to that point had me guessing he was maybe thirteen.
- Both the emperor and the crown prince are painfully flat characters.
- Kestrel spends 95% of the book believing she can’t tell Arin the truth about her engagement, because he’d start a war to break the engagement off if he found out. Then, abruptly, she changes her mind; she writes a tell-all letter and asks Tensen to deliver it. Tensen begs her to think clearly, to which she responds (and this is a direct quote!): “I don’t want to think clearly! I am tired of thinking clearly. Arin should know about me. He should have always known.” BUT WHY, TELL ME WHY. That’s the only explanation she gives, and it’s infuriatingly clear that she only has this change of heart for the sake of a dramatic climax. Authors, please stop making your characters dumb for the sake of the plot.
I need to stop now or we’ll be here all day.
This book’s earning two and a half stars (instead of two) only because Kestrel’s inner turmoil and the unfulfilled romance were awesome. And hey, at least nobody got almost-raped for the sake of romance in this one!