Weekly Reads: The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!

This week, I read the whole Winner’s Trilogy. I think I carried on with it because there were snatches of legitimately good writing, but I was just really unsure what it was doing. And honestly, I have to conclude that it didn’t really know what it was doing.

The Winner’s Trilogy is kind of a fantasy trilogy; no magic, mystical creatures, or anything of that type, but it has that “epic” feel and it takes place in another medieval-esque world. In that world, the war-hungry, prideful Valorians have conquered the Herrani people and made them slaves. The Valorians are also at war with the Dacrans, who live on the eastern side of their empire. We follow the lives of Kestrel, daughter of the Valorian army’s greatest commander, and Arin, a Herrani slave she purchases who wants to release his people from their oppression. Their star-crossed love is advertised on the back of the very first book, so. Not a spoiler.

The Winner's Trilogy

On the pro side, there’s no love triangle in The Winner’s Trilogy. Kestrel’s a kickass heroine without being great at fighting; instead, she’s a brilliant strategist. (She doesn’t exactly embrace femininity while being a badass, but she doesn’t reject it, either.) There are snatches of the way high society works and of politics throughout the books that seem interesting, and between that and descriptions of villas and the games Kestrel and Arin play, the world seems intriguing. There’s a lot of texture to it that comes out in small bits; the author clearly does her research when she wants to come up with military strategies, tile games, or what Arin is doing with a horse hoof.

But after the first book, the trilogy loses all grounding. Not that the first book is perfect; Arin and Kestrel fall in love while Arin is Kestrel’s slave, which is iffy on both of their parts. (The book only half calls this out: we’re still supposed to like Kestrel because she’s uncomfortable with slavery, even though she also tries hard to preserve her position in a pro-slavery society.) Most of what Kestrel does in the first book is plot-pointless, other than the “plot” of getting Arin to love her. And the first book contains an attempted rape that seems to exist just to vilify and get rid of a character, without allowing for the victim to deliberate or deal with the consequences, which is a horrible plot device. It seems weird, then, to say that it’s the second and third books that pull this trilogy down into outright disappointment, but—despite how damn problematic it is, the first book provides us with glimpses at a world that could be very interesting. However, it takes these building blocks and, instead of building a sweet castle, creates some piles of unidentifiable, only occasionally interesting objects.

Ultimately, I think The Winner’s Trilogy has a lot of potential but mostly fails to deliver on it because it has a few big problems right at the heart of its conflicts.

#1. The bond between Arin and Kestrel isn’t that compelling. Past book one, it’s mostly annoying. Their circumstances in book one are such that you can see why they might come to feel something for one another; Kestrel sticks up for Arin, and Arin acts as a confidante to Kestrel as she struggles with her options in a restrictive (if dominant) society. (I mean, it’s still messy as heck given that Kestrel is sticking up for her slave, and Arin is her escape from the social mores that make her his master, but that aside.) After that, they’re mostly separated and pining or miscommunicating, which doesn’t do much to strengthen their bond. They undertake huge acts of service for one another, but they seem to do it out of a sense of morality and owing one another as much as anything else. (And you can understand how they might feel that way, since power in their relationship is never balanced.) Since their relationship is the driving force of these novels, that it feels underdeveloped and skewed is a real issue.

#2. Settings that aren’t the protagonists’ home and characters who aren’t the protagonists are underdeveloped. Other than the initial city colony we start in, I couldn’t tell you much about anywhere in these books, much less the customs and ways of life of the people there. (It’s very loose: Valorians are war-hungry and cultureless. Herrani have many gods and plenty of culture. Dacrans are…eastern?) Other than Roshar, most of the secondary characters are cutouts. They crop up and drop out of the story like flies, even when they’re as important as the leaders of nations or Kestrel or Arin’s best friends and so on. (We never really understand some of their motivations or get a sense of some people beyond “I am vicious” or “I am greedy” or “I love this person,” etc.) I wanted more about the settings, so there was definitely something interesting there in the inklings we got; the characters were pretty flat, so I didn’t care about them at all. (Except maybe the emperor, who I was hoping would be an interesting villain. But he just didn’t get there.)

#3. Kestrel is torn between her father and Arin, but her father is barely a character. Kestrel’s father converses with her a handful of times over the course of these books. He exists mostly as a concept in people’s minds, Kestrel’s most of all. Given that Kestrel is personally uncomfortable with killing, slavery, and the killing or procreating functions everyone has in Valorian society, and also that her father is almost never around and pushes her to be comfortable with all of these things, that she’s devoted to her father and his pride is difficult to accept. The books rely largely on Kestrel imagining that her father cares/cared for her at some point. Kestrel’s father almost feels like the (badly lopsided) love triangle that wasn’t: he’s set up as a rival for Kestrel’s affection who you know will lose, who you know will be vilified in some way because he’s not right for her.

#4. One of Arin’s gods becomes important enough that he alters his behaviour, but the Herrani religious system is barely explored. This could be an addendum to the above “settings aren’t detailed” item, but it’s also a real issue on its own. Arin has a particular rapport with one of his gods in the later books, and while it’s easy enough to extrapolate our own sense of what this god would be like/its symbolism, we get very little that situates that god or Arin’s beliefs in a Herrani pantheon. So an aspect of faith that becomes vitally important to the way that Arin behaves is just kind of dropped in. Which feels really very cheesy? I think it can be difficult to make religious systems, especially ones that rule characters’ actions, feel lived in and not like cheesy devices, and part of that is by linking them to culture and tradition and the reality of the world. Since the religious system of the Herrani is more alluded to than ever explored, this stays firmly in cheese-land.

I could go on, probably, but I think these issues are really the central problems that drag down The Winner’s Trilogy. (Well, the issues other than the super iffy stuff I mentioned earlier.) I wouldn’t recommend this, but I’m honestly at a loss to rate it. On one hand, it’s really like a 1.5 The Wrath & The Dawn, a story with great potential that hamstrung itself with its issues and ended up drifting off into the not-memorable. On another hand, there’s such a clearly competent hand in some of the scenes that moments were fairly riveting? On the other other hand, more of it felt iffy because of how much it shoves aside the issues of slavery and attempted genocide to dwell on the slave/master romance?

So yeah. I’ll go with this overall:

But, as with Renée Ahdieh, I’d check out this author again to see what her next stuff is like, because there’s definitely imagination and some cool stuff here, so one can always hope that next time, the issues that dogpiled that potential won’t turn up.

Thanks for coming by, and feel free to rant in the comments about trilogies that you pushed through but that let you down! I’ll speak to you again soon!

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