The engagement of Lady Kestrel to Valoria’s crown prince means one celebration after another. 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…if she could only trust him. Yet can she even trust herself? For—unknown to Arin—Kestrel is becoming a skilled practitioner of deceit: an anonymous spy passing information to Herran, and close to uncovering a shocking secret.
As Arin enlists dangerous allies in the struggle to keep his country’s freedom, he can’t fight the suspicion that Kestrel knows more than she shows. In the end, it might not be a dagger in the dark that cuts him open, but the truth. And when that happens, Kestrel and Arin learn just how much their crimes will cost them.
If I had to describe The Winner's Crime in a couple of words I'd probably use intense and frustrating. I was constantly on the verge of crying out loud because all the desperation and anguish Kestrel and Arin has to face, and how the storyline seems to get only darker and darker, and it's becoming more and more difficult see a happy ending for the trilogy. Of course (me being a masochist when it comes to love stories) I absolutely adored this and yet still hated the fact that the readers have to face all the despair and tragedy with the characters. Rutkoski has definitely upped her game by adding even more political intrigue, heartbreak, terror, and expanding the world of The Winner's Trilogy.
We who read the first book, The Winner's Curse, know what sort of sweetly frustrating ending it had. And let me tell you, the frustration only increases with the second book. Kestrel is now engaged to the future-emperor, Verex, in order to protect Arin and Herrani, and she has returned to the capital to wait for her wedding. Even though Kestrel is determined to keep her resolution to stay silent why she really became engaged with Verex, I love the fact that she still wavers and how beautifully Rutkoski writes about Kestrel's desperation and unhappiness. In a way you feel like you are reading a stream of consciousness because the writing is so flowy and effortlessly lyrical that it just sucks you into the world of sadness and oppression. As Kestrel struggles with her options and choices, so does the reader. I've always loved Kestrel, her determination and strategic character but the book two only enhances her both hard and soft traits. It's heartbreaking to watch Kestrel (and Arin for that matter) to yearn after their heart's desire when it's painfully obvious that the situation is only going to end in tears. I also loved the fact that Kestrel and her father's relationship was explored more in detail, there's so much going on in there!
Arin was exactly the same as Kestrel. He struggled to understand why Kestrel would so easily change her mind about him, and whether all those emotions and words were just pretense. Of course, Arin is just as intense in the second book as he is in the first one, and I remember just sighing out loud while reading some of the passages of The Winner's Crime. Even though the second instalment isn't exactly a romance novel as much as the first book, we still get some scenes that made at least my heart thud loudly in my chest. Just like in the case of Kestrel, I liked Arin since the very beginning. He's passionate and driven, and even though he doesn't always think before he acts (unlike Kestrel who always overanalyses everything), he always means well to the ones he loves. We see this impulsiveness and spontaneity plenty again, and it definitely is the root of some of the agonising twists in the plot.
There was also this beautiful symmetry going on with Kestrel and Arin. Their actions and thoughts mirrored each other, and I just loved how Rutkoski played those out. They made me squeal and squirm in my armchair as I wished and hoped that they would just be honest with each other. The fact that even though Arin and Kestrel are madly in love, I appreciated that they weren't some hormone-driven creatures, but were also able to think with their brains. There are so much at stake at this point, two whole worlds and the lives of those, that sometimes you need to discard your own needs in order to keep others safe. Even though it's difficult to do, sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself.
So like I already mentioned, there wasn't as much romance in The Winner's Crime as there was in The Winner's Crime. Even though I'm all for the romance, I also enjoyed the fact how new, non-romantic elements were included in the plot and how the world of Winner's Trilogy expanded a bit more. I'm not going to go in details about how this was done, but a third unknown culture was introduced to the story, and it will most definitely play a role in the third book. I wish that there was a bit more exploration of the newest element, but I'm sure it will be done in the future.
Lastly I want to mention the Emperor and his son Verex. The Emperor is exactly what I wanted him to be: evil, cunning, heartless, a piece of crap whom you just want to strangle every time he comes around. And that's perfection! I loved that he was the new villain of the story who actually makes you root for Kestrel and Arin even more than before. He appears to be source of all despair and sadness and Rutkoski isn't afraid to take an advantage of that - we get plenty of terror in the novel, starting from the very first chapters. Verex on the other hand, isn't exactly what I expected him to be. He's described as fragile and watery-eyed kind of guy, and unlike his father, is surprisingly kind and warm. I'm not sure what to make of Verex, but I'm sure that I'll get answers to that in the third (and last, sad face) book.
If you think that The Winner's Curse had the most tragic ending, just wait for the ending of The Winner's Crime. WHAT THE HELL. Is Rutkoski trying to crush our already bloody and painful hearts into dust? This author is the queen of cliffhangers and of course the ending made me want to read the third book even more! I have no idea how this trilogy is going to play out in the end because since The Winner's Curse the book has been all about heartbreak, difficult choices, loss of freedom, loss of faith, and I'm a tiny bit afraid that the third book will be an apex of all that tragedy. I really hope that the third book has at least a some kind of happy ending, even though I'm pretty sure the readers will finish the series all teary, no matter what. Actual rating 4.5 stars!!