The Winner’s Kiss

The Winner's Kiss mainThe Winner’s Kiss
Marie Rutkoski1.5 Stars

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.

W-SeriesRecap

The Winner’s Curse
(Review)

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
(Review)

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:

W-Synopsis

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.

W-Praise

Kestrel’s Imprisonment

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.

Roshar

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.

W-Criticism

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. 

WHAT.

THE.

FUCK.

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.

Soap Opera

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)

  1. One lover grows to hate the other,
  2. One lover gets fake-married to someone else,
  3. One lover’s death is faked, breaking the other’s heart,
  4. One lover gets semi-possessed by a supernatural creature (here, a god),
  5. One lover desperately needs the other’s rescue,
  6. 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,
  7. 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?

Ugh.

Kestrel’s Helplessness/Uselessness

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.

W-InClosing

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,

Liam


33 thoughts on “The Winner’s Kiss

  1. The dynamics between Kestrel and General Trajan is one of my favorite things about this series, and I was also relieved that they weren’t able to make exact amends by the end because that would be too farfetched and unrealistic to accept. AND YES, all is good (even with our differing opinions) because we at least both adore Roshar. 🙂

    Hehe, I can totally see what you mean by the jarring soap opera elements in this! But I can’t help but like all of it. 😉 Also, I didn’t think about how using The God of Death could be interpreted as an excuse/laziness (on the writer’s part) and potential for plot holes for readers, but those are interesting points to be made.

    Anyway, you already know how I feel about this trilogy, but I always enjoy reading your take on the books I love, Liam! Fantastic and well supported critique, as always. 😀

    [Also, I hope your next reads prove to be better after all the mediocre ones you’ve put yourself through these past few months. 😄 ]

    Liked by 1 person

      1. P.S. I just watched Lay’s new music video (“What U Need?” which is, admittedly, a terrible name), and I don’t know exactly what I did, but my reaction to Lay’s dancing made my husband almost fall out of his chair laughing at me. I had to pause the video because he was literally leaning sideways out of his chair, covering his face like he was crying; I thought something was terribly wrong at first. Nope. Just laughing at me. Thumbs up.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It is a very terrible name but it’s better than Exo-CBX’s Hey Mama. Like why mama?? T.T AND HAHA, that is so hilarious. I can totally see that scene (with your reaction and your husband’s reaction to your reaction) play out in my mind. 😄 Just wait until you see Lay’s MV for Lose Control.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so rare to find a book (much less series) that allows a loving relationship to devolve into true betrayal and pain, and then not resolve it and smack a pretty bow on it in the end. I give this series major props for that.

      And hell yes, Roshar. Can we get more of him, please? His own separate book? I’d pick that up in a heartbeat.

      Okay, I’ll let you in on a guilty pleasure of mine: personifications of death in novels. Several of the books I’ve been lazily tinkering with for years involve personifications of death, because HECK YES. So it’s entirely possible that I was extra grumpy at Winner’s Kiss for not utilizing Death as interestingly or as well as possible. Shakes a fist.

      Thanks for sharing the joy of Roshar and broken father/daughter relationships with me! And (spoiler warning) I just finished reading My Lady Jane, and it was much more enjoyable, in my opinion. I’m gearing up for some other much-anticipated books, and I expect nothing less than (uh) moderate enjoyment. Thumbs up.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Omg, that’s a brilliant idea. We need to make a petition for Roshar to get a spinoff or novella (at the least). 😄
        Omg, I am seriously so happy to hear that! My Lady Jane is on my TBR list and it sounds so awesome. I hope you make a review for that one! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I could not have expressed my feelings for The Winner’s Kiss better (I actually DNFed it), I mean amnesia, really? I almost pulled something rolling my eyes so hard at Marie Rutkoski.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hahahahaha loved this review, Liam!

    This was literally the worst conclusion to a trilogy. I felt like all of the tension and things that made the first two books interesting was completely missing in this book. I also didn’t care anymore if Kestrel and Arin even ended up together. Also, I was kind of hoping Kestrel would end up dying because I couldn’t handle her post-amnesia. And that final battle was kind of a letdown. I wanted a REAL battle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thank you! I’m trying hard to make exasperation an art form, that’s for sure.

      The covers are exceedingly off-putting, aren’t they? I don’t blame you for not picking them up–but if you ever do get the urge to read them, let me know. I’d love to hear what you think of them. =)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! I ended up just skimming this book – I disliked it so, so much. I really don’t care for amnesia plotlines. The person with amnesia always ends up remembering the perfect piece of information at the right time!
    And since I skimmed the book, I totally missed out on the fact that the god of death played such a big part in this book. I remember all the gods being mentioned in previous books, but totally missed the god of death talking to Arin in this one! Wow – that’s the bad thing about skimming, you miss so much! But I’m not sure I could ever go back and really read this book.
    Great review – and I totally agree about it being too much like a soap opera. And withholding info from the reader is the worst! So frustrating to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so relieved to see I’m not the only one who couldn’t deal with this book. (I’m thinking that giving it 1.5 stars is generous; maybe it’s really just a one-star book? Hmm.)

      Ahaha, you did miss a lot, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Spend your time enjoying a better book, and let me be the only one between us that had to suffer the entirety of this one.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a bad sign, for sure. I once made it about three-quarters through a book (all the while wondering why its plot seemed vaguely familiar; was this book a knockoff of another, more popular one?) before I realized I’d read it already–and less than a year before, at that. Oops?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m impressed you even made it this far. I read book one and thought it was utterly ridiculous. Why is the protagonist so oblivious to the fact that she can’t just give her slave special treatment and have an affair with him without anyone noticing?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It only really bothers me when the narrator keeps telling you that the protagonist is incredibly intelligent and astute–and yet they keep making the most foolish decisions.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I won’t lie, The Winner’s trilogy is one of my favourite book series of all time, but I loved reading your review. It was great for me to see another perspective, especially one that was different to mine!
    The criticisms that you’ve outlined are on point and completely valid, and I find myself agreeing. I particularly liked your attention to detail with some of the inaccuracies. I never noticed! Thank you for mentioning them though!

    I hope you enjoy your next read! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thank you so much! I’m glad I phrased my unpopular opinion in a way that wasn’t upsetting, and hopefully my opinions won’t cause you to enjoy the series any less in the future. I’d feel horrible if my review wound up taking the shine off your favorite books. (The bond between reader and favorite books is sacred.) =)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “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 vote potassium deficiency.

    But at least that is a gorgeous and snuggly-looking cat.

    Liked by 1 person

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