Review copy provided by the publisher.
I read the first book in this series last year, and quite enjoyed it. There’s a dearth of secondary-world YA fantasy out there right now, and I always like a good Ruritanian setting, where there’s interesting worldbuilding but no overt magic. And I very much appreciate a romance where, although it’s a strong element of the plot, it isn’t the driving force; there are things in the world the protagonists care about as much as — possibly more than — each other.
In this case, what they care about is politics. Kestrel is the daughter of a prestigious Valorian general, who grew up in the occupied country of Herran. Arin is a young Herrani man, raised in slavery, and up to his eyeballs in a conspiracy to rebel against Valorian rule. I don’t want to spoil The Winner’s Curse, but I will say the political situation there changes pretty radically at end of the book, in ways that leave both characters in even more precarious positions than they were before — which is saying quite a bit.
This book involves them teetering in those precarious positions. Kestrel is definitely the worse off for most of the book; she’s stuck in a Valorian snake pit, politically speaking, with very few resources she can rely on. As somebody who likes a tasty bit of intrigue, I quite enjoyed that. I think I would have liked to see Arin grappling more with his own responsibilities, but I recognize that under the circumstances, that would have meant running him and Kestrel in separate plot strands, without the two of them interacting much at all. The necessity of keeping the leads something like together means that Arin has less traction initially; his big difficulties don’t come until later, when his plot goes off separately from Kestrel. As such, his part of the story doesn’t carry quite the same weight as hers does.
Unsurprisingly, this feels very much like a middle volume. Matters changed drastically at the end of the last book; at the end of this one, it’s more that you can see the buckets of fecal matter lined up in front of the fan, ready to be flung in the third and last volume. But it doesn’t feel predictable: I know something will blow up, and I can see certain aspects of how, but I don’t know what the ultimate fallout will be.
This is because Rutkoski has done a good job so far of creating problems with no easy solutions. Even if you could kick Valoria out of Herran and be sure they would never retaliate or come back . . . Herran’s in a mess, and will take generations to fully rebuild. And that only fixes Herran, not the rest of the continent that Valoria is trying to conquer. Overthrow the empire? Maybe — but how are you going to manage that? And what kind of terrible hardships will that create for the ordinary Valorian citizens, who are not to blame for the imperialistic tendencies of their leaders?
Nowhere is this ambiguity more clear than in Kestrel and Arin’s relationship. Fundamentally, they have both done things the other would — and should — disapprove of. They’ve had to make political choices in situations where there’s no good choice, just “what will cause the fewest people to die?” When they have failures to communicate, I tolerate it much better than usual, because storming off without listening to somebody’s explanation is more understandable when the thing they’re trying to explain is why they caused a massive famine. I’m still left with the questions I had at the end of the first book, which are: does Rutkoski intend the two of them to live happily ever after? And if so, how the hell are they going to manage that?
It does feel a bit weaker to me than the first book, I think because there’s a stretch of it where Arin has very little to do. Had his interactions with Kestrel been tightened up, and the extra space used to develop another sub-plot for him, the book as a whole would have hit more strongly than it did. As it stands, though, it’s still enjoyable, and much more ethically complex than YA usually gets credit for. I’m very much looking forward to the third volume.
The Winner’s Crime is on sale as of <checks watch> yesterday. (I should have posted this sooner, but got hammered down by a sudden cold.) Many thanks to the publisher for providing the review copy.