Note: There will necessarily be some spoilers for Book One of this series.
This is Book Two of a very good YA fantasy trilogy that began with The Winner’s Curse (see my review here).
In The Winner’s Curse, we meet seventeen-year-old Kestrel, the daughter of single parent General Trajan, the highest ranking general of the Valorian Empire, which rules over the lands taken ten years previously from the Herrani. The Herrani now serve as “slaves” to the Valorians, but the slavery is depicted as more of indentured servitude. Kestrel has been brought up with the help of a Herrani woman, and so is more compassionate than other Valorians towards Herranis, and more conflicted about the whole slavery system. Nevertheless, she doesn’t question it too much; it is the world into which she has been born.
Mentored by her father, Kestrel has a great mind for strategy, whether in games of cards or games of war, but is resisting her father’s efforts to enlist in the military. (Her choices, like those of all Valorians whether male or female, are the military or marriage, the latter option becoming mandatory by age twenty for anyone who is not a soldier.) Kestrel is not interested in either.
At a slave auction, Kestrel impulsively purchases a rebellious and handsome boy of 19 named Arin promoted by the auctioneer as a blacksmith and singer; Kestrel’s father needs a good smith, and Kestrel loves music.
Thereafter, two very significant things happen to change Kestrel’s life: first Arin is not who he seems to be, and second, Kestrel and Arin fall in love. The complications are enormous, and the resolution possibly tragic.
Book Two begins one month after the end of the first book. Kestrel is now living in the capital of Valoria and is engaged to Prince Verex, heir to the Valerian Empire, pursuant to a deal she made with the Emperor that would ensure Arin’s freedom. Yet her heart is broken.
In fact, both Kestrel and Verex are in love with others – in Kestrel’s case, it is of course Arin, and Verex is in love with a girl in the Court named Risha. And in one of the biggest surprises of this book, Vertex turns out to be a really good guy. While no standard YA triangle develops, I think no reader will come away from this not loving Verex as much as some of the other characters.
Most of this book concerns the intrigue in the Emperor’s Court. The Court is a cruel place, and we meet some very likable new characters only to lose them to the violence of life in the capital. While Arin is still a part of this story, he is not as central as he was in Book One, or at least, not “in person.”
One major character seems to have a change of personality in this book, or perhaps, turns out to be far different than we thought he was. This development provides an interesting parallel to Kestrel, who wants desperately to change into someone other than who she is thought to be.
The book ends on Kestrel’s 18th birthday with a big cliffhanger, but not one that will anger readers. One can still stop reading (but you won’t want to) and consider this particular chapter in the saga “finished.”
Discussion: Kestrel was driving me crazy in this book, although her behavior was not inconsistent with who she was and the dilemma in which she found herself. But a lot of people suffer because of seesawing by Kestrel and Arin and their lack of the opportunity to communicate with one another, not to mention Kestrel’s unwillingness to be honest with Arin.
The prose is quite well-done, although one wonders at the rapid psychological recovery the characters have over truly horrible acts – including torture and death, perpetrated by those in power.
Evaluation: I really like this series, and while this second book was definitely a “middle” book, it did not disappoint. I am looking forward to the conclusion.
Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015
Suggested Sound Track For This Book: Losing My Religion by R.E.M.: