*This review will contain spoilers!*
First off, I need to say a huge thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing, for accepting my request to review this book on NetGalley, and to NetGalley for the service that they provide.
If you haven't read my review of 'The Winner's Curse', the first book in the series, I'd suggest you go and read that now, before you get any deeper into this one. In that review I summarise the world that The Winner's Trilogy is set in, so I'm not going to summarise it again.
"How can the inconsequence of your life not shame you?" He said, "How do you not feel empty?"
I do, she thought.
At the end of 'The Winner's Curse', Kestrel had accepted a deal with the emperor: if she married his son, he would allow the Herrani to have their own independence over their country, with Arin being instated as the governor of Herran so that he could report back to him and sort out what they were being taxed. We pick up with 'The Winner's Crime' only a few weeks after the conclusion of the previous book, with Kestrel's wedding preparations being pushed along full steam ahead, and Arin ruling the Herrani, trying his hardest to forget that she ever existed.
I don't even know what to say about this book, apart from I LOVED IT. I don't know what it is about this series, but I devoured the first novel, I fell in love with all of the characters, the writing, the world... and that just continues on into the second installment.
Getting to see Kestrel trapped in the palace in an arranged engagement that she despises, brings out an entirely different side to her character. In the first book we saw her struggling with her feelings for Arin and that in relation to her loyalty to her people, which was an interesting character arc in itself. But in the second book we see Kestrel learning to despise her own people, seeing the corruption that is occurring with the emperor, and the manipulative grip he holds over everyone he controls. As we see Kestrel struggling to decide what is the right thing, loyalty to her people, or minimising the casualties in a war that only seems to be continuing on for power and glory, it's very interesting to see how her decision making process changes.
Meanwhile, over with Arin, we get to see a lot more of his feelings for Kestrel: his reflections upon how their relationship started driving home the bizarre nature of their coupling, and his fluctuating belief in her and her actions which drove me mad in an empathetic way. The emotions in this book are just so realistically written. Sometimes if you want to save the people closest to you from getting hurt, you need to hurt them yourself, which is something Kestrel has gotten to grips with quite brutally. Whenever her and Arin encounter each other she seems to throw something else in his face, which is quite obviously her pushing him away in an attempt to save them both. However, Arin seems to take everything at face value, leading to him questioning what he knows deep down in his gut to be true, and making us as readers want to shout and scream at him to open his eyes and realise he does know her, if he can just trust himself. One of the greatest examples of this was in a conversation between Arin and Kestrel's dressmaker:
"She cares for you," Deliah said suddenly. "I know that she does."
It was so blatantly untrue that it almost seemed like a cruel joke.
Sometimes, with books that feature forbidden love, in which the characters nearly get together and then get cruelly torn apart, it just drags. You just think 'well, I really don't care about this', and you just want to put it down and move on with your life. That is not the case with 'The Winner's Crime'. I was gripped from start to finishing, constantly questioning whether Kestrel was going to try and get out of her engagement to Prince Verex (who, by the way, is one of the loveliest characters I've ever read) and if she was going to, how and when. Whenever she nearly told Arin the truth behind the treaty with the emperor, my heart was in my throat, desperate to see how he would react: with anger? With acceptance?
If you don't like slow burning, forbidden love stories, this is not the book for you, because that is a huge part of the novel. However, it's not all that the novel consists of, oh no. This is not a one trick pony. Kestrel is one of my favourite female protagonists of all time. Deciding to betray your country to try and save people who are being treated unfairly is a huge decision, and one that should be celebrated and appreciated by all. If it was up to me, I'd probably close my eyes and pretend the whole thing wasn't happening, because I'm a massive coward. But Kestrel is not a coward: Kestrel is a strong, independent woman, who manages to do what she needs to do even when it seems like a terrible decision in the moment.
There is literally nothing bad I can say about this book. I try to criticise at least one thing in a book that I like, because I don't believe any book can be perfect, but this seems like the closest I've ever gotten to a perfect book (well, a perfect two books in a series, as the same can be said about the first book). The third book, 'The Winner's Kiss', should be out next year, and with the cliffhanger at the end of this book leaving me right on the edge of my seat and shouting that it's not allowed to finish there, I'm terrified about what the third and final book in the trilogy is going to do to me.