This is my first time reviewing an entire series as a single review on this blog. Admittedly, I did review the entire Dred Chronicles series by Ann Aguirre, but I did each of them individually. I'm trying something new this time around.
I listened to all three audiobooks of The Winner's Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, so I feel my experience of the series is somewhat different from those who read the physical books. My experience of the characters is heavily influenced by the way narrator Justine Eyre performed them, the accents she gave, the pacing she put into each scene. It's kind of like watching the movie before reading the book - you can't help your interpretation being influenced by what you've already seen and heard.
That said, I truly adored the entire trilogy. So let's get into the review, shall we? Note: Because I did not physically read the books, I don't know how a lot of things are spelled. I'm going to try my best.
The Winner's Curse, book one, tells the story of Kestrel, the daughter of an elite general, who has grown up in one of the reigning empire's occupied nations. The indigenous citizens were enslaved ten years earlier, and though Kestrel is uncomfortable with slavery, she is her father's daughter and is complicit in the system. That is, until she and her friend Jess attend a slave auction out of morbid curiosity, and Kestrel finds herself buying one - Arin.
Arin is a strange breed. He's young, hasn't been broken, and talks to Kestrel in ways no other slave would dare, especially given who her father is. But as much as they talk, Kestrel doesn't really know anything about him - and what she doesn't know could be very, very dangerous.
The Winner's Crime and The Winner's Kiss follow on with Kestrel's and Arin's stories, but I don't want to spoil what happens in the first book, so I won't go into plot details here.
I'm not a huge high fantasy buff, so it was really cool to be placed in a fantasy world without fantasy elements - there are no magical creatures, there is no magic. The Winner's Trilogy is purely about political intrigue, war, and love (in all its many forms). Marie Rutkoski is excellent at worldbuilding - I understood the relationships between the empire, the occupied territories, and those yet to be occupied quite easily, without ever having to be explicitly told anything.
Part of the reason for this is because the characters she chose to put front and center come from very different sides, but that doesn't make their characters feel like caricatures. Kestrel is an incredible leading lady because of her multifacetedness - an excellent tactician, Kestrel has no interest in following in her father's footsteps. Part of the reasons she buys Arin (other than fascination) is because she's told he can sing, and she deeply loves playing piano. She's not good in combat, though her people are supposed to be known for it, and she loves the arts and stories in ways only the occupied people do - because she was raised by her nurse, a slave from the occupied territory.
But my love is truly for Arin - because he's hiding so much in the first book he was hard to get to know, but as the story ensues he becomes a very compelling co-lead, with so many warring emotions within him. He has a purpose that he can't share with Kestrel at the same time that he wants to share everything with her. He's equal parts charming and awkward, talented and blockheaded. Sometimes you want to beat him over the head for his stupidity, while other times you want to shake his hand for his straightforward loyalty.
This is not a series for the faint of heart. A lot of really, truly bad things happen to these characters and their friends and family. Waiting for the third book was so incredibly painful that I'm kind of jealous of everyone just getting into the series now. This is definitely the kind of series where anything that can go wrong, will. And it will hurt, and feel awful. And will make you cry while driving and listening to the book in the car, like I was.
I loved trying to keep track of all the political machinations going on, and begging people to just be honest with each other (in the way Arin often foolishly is), despite knowing that honesty in this series often gets people, if not killed, maimed.
I also love how the different worlds (court, slums, etc.) feel different just by the way they're written about. When we move locales, the feel and pace of the story changes. War feels very different from espionage.
If you're looking for a love story, this one is definitely a slow burn - but it's not the kind where the characters don't get together fast for stupid reasons. They're kept apart for very, very obvious ones that make complete sense. There is one misunderstanding that almost made me beat my head against my steering wheel (I do a lot of my audiobook listening in the car, can you tell?), but it made logical and character sense. So I just strangled the characters in my head and kept listening.
Since so many bad things happen, I would put a bit of a trigger warning on the series as a whole - for both subject matter and some pretty detailed violence (often of a torture-persuasion). None of it is gratuitous, as Rutkoski establishes very early on the reality of the world they're in, but it's still pretty shocking to listen to (or read).
As for the audiobook experience: It took me a while to get used to the way Justine Eyre reads this series. She gives all of the characters different accents, when I typically wouldn't have had any accents at all as I read. It does put you in another world, but it was hard to get used to at first and a little annoying. That said, those voices are now the only way I can picture Kestrel and Arin and the way they talk - so I guess it got under my skin in the end. Because of how emotional and heartbreaking and gutwrenching the series is, I often got teary-eyed or angry or (what can I say?) turned on at inappropriate moments, but I would still recommend the experience. It makes you a lot more impatient to read this series at someone else's pace, but I think impatience works well in this case. It makes you eager to catch every last detail that might help these poor souls out of their situation.
This review is already stupidly long, but I do have to say one last thing: unlike many trilogies out there in the Young Adult world, this one does not lose its momentum in the final third. The Winner's Kiss is just as compelling a novel as The Winner's Curse and The Winner's Crime are. It's an incredible finale, and I was so totally impressed that Rutkoski managed to wrap up such a huge story in only three books without it feeling rushed or disingenuous. Every book was 5 stars for me. Can't wait to see what Rutkoski does next, though I will miss Kestrel and Arin very much.