Rutkoski is the Real Winner in The Winner’s Kiss

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Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Review: It’s always bittersweet to read the conclusion of a series. You want to read it, to have that sense of conclusion so badly, but you’re also afraid of saying goodbye. In the short time it took me to read this novel, I was entranced yet again by the world Marie Rutkoski has built; a world I have not visited in about a year. I’m happy to say the conclusion has left me full of appreciation for Rutkoski.

Kestrel and Arin are just as brilliant as I remember them to be. Kestrel is perhaps one of the most intelligent and tactical characters I have had the pleasure of walking alongside. But she’s not me, and Rutkoski doesn’t try to make her me. That’s where so many YA novels have fallen. They’ve sacrificed their female characters’ originality in an attempt to allow them to reach the reader at their own level. But Kestrel is different than the average reader, I think. She takes risks I don’t think many of us would take. She’s not better than us or worse than us–she’s just different and I love her for that.

I also appreciate Rutkoski’s ability not get lost in the romance. As in the second book of this series, she dedicates proper time and thought to the political and doesn’t force Kestrel and Arin together. I believe the spaces between the romance are when the readers want them to be together most, and this is a plot tactic for which I applaud Rutkoski.

I would have liked to have seen more of the side characters in this novel, as I became close to several of them in the previous book but did not see much of them in this conclusion. I also felt that The Winner’s Crime was superior on a line-by-line basis. Part of what made the second book so good was that I expected little of it, but that just made my expectations higher for this conclusion. Rutkoski certainly met my expectations, but she also has a precedence of exceeding it, which this novel did not do for me.

Nonetheless, the series is brilliant and this book is a fitting conclusion to it all.

Recommendation: Those who have already picked up the first book in the series should certainly not put it down, and should read the series out to its end. I recommend it to those interested in The Hunger Games and The Throne of Glass, as Kestrel is a similarly determined, tactical young protagonist. The series is good for about 14 and up, I’d say.

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The Dead Fire of An Ember in the Ashes

Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes is not as fiery as I expected for something that’s received so much attention.

The main draw would be for fans of ancient Roman culture and dystopian-style fantasy who can overlook a love-at-first-sight romance.

The novel follows two characters–the slave scholar Laia and the elite soldier Elias–as they struggle to escape their destinies. When Laia’s brother is taken from her, she runs. Her guilt and her desire to save him leads her to join up with the Resistance, a group of rebels who are not all they seem. Around the same time the Resistance places her as a spy in Blackcliff, the military academy Elias attends, Elias is one of four selected for the Trials, a competition to rule an empire for which he has no love. Their paths intertwine as they resist all odds to fight the Martial Empire.

I was particularly excited for this book because it was advertised as a stand-alone. Stand-alone fantasy novels (particularly in YA) are few and far between, likely because much of the first book is spent world-building.

But this is not a stand-alone book.

By Part III, I realized there was not nearly enough time for an empire to be overthrown. The first objective established–retrieving Laia’s brother–isn’t even finished in this novel. It’s no surprise to me, then, that the publishers recently announced a sequel. Why this would ever pass as a stand-alone, I don’t know.

The Martial empire is indeed an interesting world. The ancient Roman inspiration can be found in everything from the Trials and government structure to character names. Tahir clearly put a lot of work into world-building, and her efforts paid off.

I also respect the book for Tahir’s ability to juggle two speakers. It’s difficult to build an interesting plot, develop characters, and build a strong voice from two perspectives. And I appreciated having a cowardly protagonist in Laia.

While Laia’s character was realistic in her tendency to run away from a fight, Elias’s character was unrealistic in that he still had a soul. How could he not be broken after all the obstacles Blackcliff threw at him? He didn’t even have a faith of any kind to cling to. Horrible as it is, the only reason I see for him to not commit suicide in attempting to desert sooner or to not have a broken soul is for plot convenience.

And while we’re on the topic of unrealistic… I can’t buy into the romance in this novel, be it between Laia and Keenan, Laia and Elias, or Helene and Elias (yes there really are love triangles for both main characters). I’m sorry, but a scholar-scholar or elite-elite relationship makes much more sense than the scholar-elite relationship (Laia and Elias) the author seems to prefer. I mean, at least the other pairings have a chance for couple names (Laias? Elaia? Doesn’t come off as good as Kaia or Helias).

So while An Ember in the Ashes has an intriguing premise and successful use of two speakers, I cannot give it five stars because the romance feels flat to me. To be fair, the love triangles weren’t obnoxious and the love-at-first-sight romance is a personal pet peeve of mine. Perhaps this book is worse in my eyes because my expectations were so high.

Recommendation: An Ember in the Ashes contains some violence (branding, maiming, disfigurement) and rape of scholars by Masks is brought up frequently. I would recommend this series for high school students who enjoy the Geisha trilogy, The Hunger Games, and The Winner’s Curse series.