Spoiler Rating: High
Oh good lord, Ashers,
This book was about a millimeter away from being a DNF the entire three weeks it took me to read it. And having (finally) finished it, I can tell you that I regret the time I spent reading not just this one book, but the entire trilogy.
That’s not to say it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. The premise is fantastic, and the story has its high points. But each book had major flaws, and not nearly enough strengths to make up for them—and this book was the worst offender of them all.
Tons of spoilers for the entire trilogy await below, so beware.
The Winner’s Curse
Valorian gentlewoman Kestrel buys herself a handsome Herrani man, Arin. They fall in love, but woe, he organizes a Herrani rebellion against the Valorian conquerors, which leaves most Valorians in Herran dead. Kestrel angsts about her torn loyalties, then runs to beg the Valorian emperor for kindness to the Herrani. Emperor deigns to let Arin become governor of Herran if Kestrel marries Crown Prince Verex. She agrees, then goes and lies to Arin, saying she’s always wanted to be empress so she’s stoked about the engagement. They both dissolve into secret puddles of sad.
The Winner’s Crime
Future empress Kestrel engages in some spying at the empire’s capital city, and uncovers the emperor’s Most Evil Scheme: he’s slowly poisoning the Herrani people to death so he can . . . kill off a country’s worth of slave labor? I guess? Meanwhile, Arin forges an alliance with the eastern empire of Dacra to fight for real freedom from Valoria. Kestrel (using a code name so Arin won’t know she still loves him/is spying for Herran) warns the Herrani about the poison, but her act of treason is discovered by her father, who reports her to the emperor. Kestrel’s sentenced to work herself to death in the northern sulfur mines. Back in Herran, Arin cries because he thinks Kestrel’s just a power-hungry courtier who hates his guts and doesn’t care what happens to his people.
And now, The Winner’s Kiss:
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?
The plot, in brief: Arin gets himself possessed by/bound to the Herrani god of death, which results in SUPERHUMAN POWERS RAWR. He then rescues Kestrel from the mines, but alas! she has amnesia. She twiddles her thumbs for most of the book, during which time there are a few skirmishes and stuff, and our protagonists fall in love all over again (thanks, amnesia!). The good guys ultimately prevail.
I was genuinely impressed with how the book handled Kestrel’s imprisonment in the sulfur mines; we see both the physical and emotional brutality of the place, and watch Kestrel descend from resolute strength into hopeless nothingness. It’s powerfully written and awful to read.
I won’t show you this entire scene, because probably not all of you want to see (a terrified, begging-for-mercy) Kestrel being methodically whipped, but just look at how the scene ends:
My heart breaks for her. This is brutality-in-work-camp-mines done right. (I’m staring unblinking at you, Celaena.)
Kestrel and Trajan
I’d praised The Winner’s Crime for the conflict between Kestrel and her beloved father, General Trajan. Her love for Arin and sympathy for the Herrani breaks their relationship in an awful way—and in this book, the awful continues.
But the best part is that their relationship isn’t neatly restored by the end of the book. The hurt they’ve done to each other is too deep and significant to be fixed with a hug, and the story actually respects that.
I didn’t have time to wax eloquent about my love for Roshar (prince of the eastern empire of Dacra) in my review for The Winner’s Crime, but let me reassure you: Roshar is awesome. He’s snarky, proud, powerful but not too powerful, has a legitimately dark past and legitimately painful emotional scars, and (wait for it) he’s gay. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was Roshar who gave me the strength to keep reading.
Shame he’s not the protagonist of the story.
Okay. I could write a dissertation on the problems I had with this book, but none of us have time for that. Let’s limit this to the most significant/aggravating points, in no particular order.
Gratuitous Rape WHYYY
The book starts in Arin’s point of view, and we’re treated to a very detailed flashback to the Valorian’s initial conquest of the Herran peninsula—and, specifically, the horrible deaths of Arin’s family. But the book decides “watching his family killed in front of him when he was a child” wasn’t bad enough, so Arin’s older sister gets raped just to add angst to Arin’s backstory.
Authors, stop subjecting your characters to rape merely to up the book’s angst. Stop subjecting your female characters to terrible violence for the “benefit” of your male characters. It doesn’t make Arin any more sympathetic than he was already. So what’s the point? Don’t do it.
Honestly, I almost DNFed this book before I’d finished the first goddamn chapter because of this. I can’t describe my hate.
I have a guess for why this series is so popular with (almost) everyone but me: it’s a soap opera, with a soap opera’s focus on melodrama, romance, and angst over logic or sound storytelling.
And the soap-opera elements are at their most obvious in The Winner’s Kiss, where we see (among other things)
- One lover grows to hate the other,
- One lover gets fake-married to someone else,
- One lover’s death is faked, breaking the other’s heart,
- One lover gets semi-possessed by a supernatural creature (here, a god),
- One lover desperately needs the other’s rescue,
- One lover gets fucking amnesia, and spends almost the entire book trying to figure out (a) who they are/were, and (b) what happened in the last two books, thus upping the angst levels to EXTREME and allowing the lovers to get to know each other and fall in love all over again,
- Nobody cares about the war because amnesia-angst and second-chance romance, and seriously why would they care about the ONGOING WAR, am I right?
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying soap operas, but holy crap I personally cannot stand how the book prioritizes exaggerated emotions over realism. The story just smears melodrama across its pages and looks smug, while I’m over here desperate for discernible character development and clear motives and realistic stakes and a natural progression of cause and effect. Bah.
The God of Death
After two books without any fantastical elements, The Winner’s Kiss goes off the deep end and immediately drags an actual god into the story.
I’d politely describe this sudden addition as unexpected and weird.
Why wasn’t there any hint of magic or real-live gods in books one and two? Couldn’t we have received more significant foreshadowing of the god’s true existence than “these people are somewhat religious”?
But the god poses more problems than just being out of place in the series.
1) Farewell, tension
From the very first chapter, the Herrani god of death claims Arin as his beloved servant, and is present in Arin’s mind and body—thereby stripping the book of any suspense for how the war (and therefore the book) will turn out. How can Arin fail when the literal god of death is (1) telling him what tactics he needs to win, (2) controlling his body during battle so he becomes an unstoppable killing machine, and (3) saving him from dying?
2) Farewell, consequences
Throughout the book, Death reminds Arin that Arin’s loyalty is to his god, not to Kestrel. “If you don’t forget about the girl,” Death says (I’m paraphrasing), “I’ll revoke my favor, and you reeaally don’t want that. But if you’re devoted to me, I’ll make sure you kill General Trajan.”
So Arin angsts, but agrees to the god’s terms—and the few times he wavers, Death gets pissed until Arin is sufficiently cowed into devotion again. (It sounds interesting as I type it, but trust me, it’s not interestingly portrayed in the book.)
But in the climactic battle, Arin decides not to kill General Trajan, because he doesn’t want to hurt Kestrel’s feelings by killing her daddy. He is literally prioritizing Kestrel’s emotional needs over his own goal and his sworn fealty to his god.
And Death apparently doesn’t mind, because he (Death) isn’t mentioned again for the rest of the book, except once at the very end:
Yep, Death’s whole “TURN YOUR BACK ON ME FOR KESTREL AND SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES” spiel throughout the book was intended solely to add extra angst. Who wants consequences mucking up their Happily Ever After anyway, you know?
Due largely (but, alas, not entirely) to her time in the sulfur mines, Kestrel’s a helpless mess for most of the book—which is especially unfortunate because she’s our heroine, and we spend at least half the book in her point of view. Does she have much of a goal? Nope. Does she get much accomplished? Nope. It’s so dull.
And worse, she doesn’t actually serve a purpose in the story. Sure, she accomplishes a couple small things (figures out where and how the Valorian army will attack the allied Herrani/Dacran forces; drags an injured Arin out of battle to safety), but Arin’s god of death would’ve accomplished those things if Kestrel hadn’t done them first.
Seriously, if you removed Kestrel from the story, nothing would be different. Except the romance, of course, but the romance is half-baked and unbelievable, so that wouldn’t be a loss.
The Writing Style
Again, this isn’t the worst-written book I’ve ever read, but it made some significant and repeated missteps that I couldn’t see past. I’m over this trilogy, so I’ll only mention two here.
1) Characters know things they shouldn’t
I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t look at someone’s expression and/or tiniest gesture and immediately intuit exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. But Kestrel and Arin sure can!
Take this example, which is told in the third-person limited (Kestrel’s) point of view:
That’s quite a specific thing to determine from a slight hand-twitch, Kestrel—especially after a conversation that had absolutely nothing to do with his appearance or scar. How do you know it wasn’t a regular ol’ hand-twitch? Or maybe he was going to pick his nose or scratch his crotch and smothered the impulse before he embarrassed himself in front of you?
I don’t want to be spoon-fed information that the POV character wouldn’t realistically know—but it happens on (approximately) every page of this book. This is lazy writing, and both boring and annoying to read. Writers, don’t do this.
2) Withholding information from the reader, but not the characters
So you remember how the book has zero tension from chapter one, because the infallible god of death is on the good guys’ side, so they can’t possibly lose?
The book seems to realize its mistake at the last minute, and decides to insert false tension in the climax by withholding information from the reader that all the characters know.
See, Arin comes up with a plan to quickly end the war:
That’s the end of the chapter; we don’t get to hear Kestrel’s plan.
In the next chapter, she’s painting a few Bite and Sting game tiles with a clear, glossy paint; apparently, her plan is to challenge the emperor to a game, with the stakes being the Herran peninsula’s freedom. (This is an awful plan, but we don’t need to discuss that.) Even though Kestrel’s using the glossy paint to cheat, Arin’s worried that the stakes are too high:
The climax alternates between Arin/Death’s battle against General Trajan and Kestrel’s tile game against the emperor, which she gets increasingly nervous about as she starts to lose. And Kestrel does lose the tile game—only to reveal that the painted tiles were coated with a deadly poison, and Kestrel’s whole plan was to assassinate him all along.
Which all of the good guys knew, but the reader didn’t.
I just. I was flabbergasted when I read this, because this is not how tension works.
If the only way you can wrangle some tension out of your story is by withholding information from your reader that all your characters know, there is something wrong with your story. Withholding information that’s common knowledge for your POV characters is a cheap and lazy trick that can leave readers (at least, critical readers) feeling cheated and manipulated. Figure out what you need to change in your plot to create real tension, and tweak it until it works.
After slogging my way through such a snorefest of a book, this pathetic and underhand attempt to manufacture tension pissed me off.
I’m so glad to be done with this trilogy. It’s like a weight’s been taken off my shoulders, and I can finally look forward to reading again.
Ready to celebrate when you are,