The Winner’s Crime: A richly layered middle book in a strong trilogy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski YA fantasy book reviewsThe Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner’s Crime is the second book by Marie Rutkoski in her young adult WINNERS TRILOGY, and like the first, though I had some issues with some aspects, Rutkoski’s writing fully won me over even before we got to yet another great ending. It’s pretty much impossible to not have some spoilers for book one, The Winner’s Curse, in this review, so fair warning. Any spoilers for The Winner’s Crime will be minor. Spoilers for book one start in the next paragraph.

At the end of The Winner’s Curse (told you spoilers were starting), Kestrel had managed to avert major bloodshed and battle by negotiating with the Emperor to have Herran declared an independent part of the Empire (its people no longer enslaved), but at the cost of agreeing to marry the Emperor’s son, Prince Verex, a fact she kept from Arin, now governor of Herran. Now she resides in the palace, under the watchful, dominating eye of the Emperor, whose cruelty and relentlessness is turned apparently against all: Kestrel, whom he pushes to finally set a wedding date; a captured Herrani spy whose brutal interrogation Kestrel is forced to watch; the Eastern “savages” whom he wars against via Kestrel’s father, his best general; and even his own son, far too mild-mannered and intellectual for his father’s liking. In fact, the emperor is much more impressed with Kestrel’s intelligence, strategic thinking, and determination, and she, he tells her, is his true heir, so long as she learns his lessons well and shows no defiance.

Having had her eyes opened to the cruelty of the empire’s acts, though (in book one as the Heranni rose up against their enslavers), Kestrel can no longer simply go along with the Empire or its Emperor. So despite the risks to herself, and despite the fact that she is betraying not only the Emperor but in some fashion her father, she sets out to minimize the damage the Empire can do to those it fights. Meanwhile, Arin seeks an alliance between Herran and the East, hoping the fact that they fight a common enemy (one the Empire fights in open battle, the other it now smothers in taxes and policy) will be sufficient motivation. And though both still love each other, their paths are mostly separated in this book, not only by their differing actions, but also because of several major misunderstandings — some unintentional, some due to deceptions intended for the other’s “own good.”

Usually, I start off my reviews with the positives, but I’m going to switch things up here and begin with the issues I had with The Winner’s Crime. One is just a matter of sheer personal taste and has to do with the romance angle. Generally, I’m not big on romance; it’s just not my thing. And while the lovers don’t have many face-to-face encounters in this book, there’s a lot of pining, ruing, and wishing going on in both their heads about the other. All of which is wholly within character and perfectly natural; it was just a bit much for my own personal liking. Your mileage will vary depending on your view toward that sort of thing.

Other issues are relatively minor. A few times where coincidence plays a bit too much of a role (this was more of a problem in the first book). An occasional overly florid turn of phrase. A couple of abrupt shifts near the end. An act that will have huge repercussions in the world that seemed to come mostly out of nowhere (though it’s possible I’m not recalling enough of the first book; perhaps the potential was laid there). The most frequent issue for me was that sometimes Rutkoski seemed to construct images/events as plot/theme parallels that were too much on the nose for me. I can’t say these were even all intentional; perhaps they were just the unconscious turnings of an author’s mind as she is so focused on things. But intentional or not, there were just a few too many times where I felt the author’s presence, where an image felt too clearly created to carry more weight.

Really, looking over the above paragraph, it isn’t much to complain about. One problem is just my own personal taste issue. Others occur relatively rarely in a 400-page book. One might be my own fault for not recalling enough of The Winner’s Curse. And one may be some over-reading on my part. The only other possible issue for some readers is the pace, which can be slow.

I saved that pacing issue for last, though, because I consider it more a strength than a weakness in the novel. While I do think the novel could probably lose 50 pages or so without harm, generally Rutkoski makes excellent use of the book’s length and pace to focus on character development and the slow unfolding of strategy. Neither of the two main characters are the same as they were at the start or end of the first book; nor are they the same by the end of this one. Not just the characters but their relationships — to each other, to friends, relatives, mentors, enemies — all these change as well, which is as it should be. Sometimes they change in small ways, sometimes in large ways, sometimes they change and then go back and then change again, all in wholly human fashion.

But my favorite part of all this character change and development is how it all takes place in the context of this world. Take the two characters in love. Sure, other books show “star-crossed lovers” who can’t be together because the world conspires against them, but usually this is handled in a very surface fashion. Rutkoski though works here on a more complex level. Yes, the two are separated by geography, by events. But much of what drives their separation as well has to do with misunderstanding, with deception, with a lack of trust (in each other, in themselves) which in the context of this society, with its slavery, its second-class citizenry, its brutal empire is almost inevitable.

These are all layers of what they are and have been steeped in all their lives, and they accrete over time becoming more, not less complex and powerful. In other words, it isn’t simply the things that happen now in this society which act as an obstacle; it’s the inherent structure of the society. How could these two end up together? How does love or honesty flourish or flower in such a world? At least between ethical people. It would be unnatural.

The question arises as well when it comes to the other problematic relationship in the novel, that between Kestrel and her father.  How does Kestrel, who has opened her eyes to the violence of this world that was in large part created by her father, an architect of death and violence, reconcile that with a father-daughter relationship based on love? Can she? Again, this isn’t a singular act of her father’s she needs to “forgive,” it’s a long history and an on-going present and a promised future.  Where does one begin with that?

This same cyclical issue runs throughout the novel as a major theme. Past violence drives more violence which drives more. Horrible decisions of “lesser evil” drive horrible decisions of more evil. Small decisions or misunderstandings ripple out, creating new ones. All of it forming a great web that threatens to strangle any hope for these characters.

Speaking of which, Rutkoski introduces several new characters in The Winner’s Crime that add greatly to the storyline. One is the Emperor, a far more successfully ruthless and intelligent player than we typically get when we have him (or her) matched against our plucky young heroine. We’ve been conditioned as readers to simply assume that Kestrel, whom we know is a master of strategy and is highly intelligent, will outsmart the Emperor. We’ve seen that story a million times. And we as readers are all set to fall for it when Kestrel, in an early crisis at a ball, comes up with a brilliant on-the-spot solution employing the objects at hand and her own native ingenuity. Of course she got away with it, we think. Kestrel herself falls for this assumption of her own superiority. But the Emperor isn’t just smart or crafty — “just like Kestrel.” He’s been smart and crafty for decades; he’s had the practical experience that she has not. And so we’re given a much more realistic and thus much more tense and enjoyable conflict.

His son, Prince Verex, is a character we’ve seen before — the intellectual reluctant heir of a tough-love disappointed father, but he’s drawn wonderfully throughout. Even better is one of the Eastern characters, who is not only a vividly created character, but one who adds a welcome and regular dose of levity into the novel. Though he doesn’t lack for his own emotionally complex background.

The close of the Winner’s Crime is particularly strong, as was the case with The Winner’s Curse. That, I’d say, along with the rich emotional/social complexity that permeates the story, bodes extremely well for the final book, out next year. Recommended.

The Winner’s Trilogy — (2014-2016) Young adult. Publisher: Winning what you want may cost you everything you love As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions. One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin. But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined. Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I missed your review of the first one, so I went back and read it. I think I would love these! Definitely on my list.

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