Actual rating: 3.5
“A kestrel is a hunting hawk.”
“Yes. The perfect name for a warrior girl.”
“Well.” His smile was slight, but it was there. “I suppose neither of us is the person we were believed we would become.”
The second half of this book was exceedingly better than the first. The first was plagued with a rather weak, insipid heroine, an asshat of a "slave" who, seriously, did not act like a fucking slave at all, more like the king of a castle. I disagree with slavery (no shit...like anyone in their right mind would ever admit to agreeing with slavery), but the point is that within a book, the role is there to be played, and the so-called slave in this book was more in control than any slave I have ever imagined.
Furthermore, the first half of the book was plagued with feeeeeelings and a girl who---instead of wanting to be a fucking bad-ass soldier like her father hoped---merely aspires to...play the piano.
Womp womp womp.
To add further to the insults, there is a clichéd as all hell love triangle between a "brute," a dark, brooding, wild slave, and a handsome, blond-haired, affable young nobleman.
The Summary: Kestrel is the pampered daughter of a general in the Valorian army. She holds a prestigious position in society---not very long ago, the Valorian army conquered the Herrani. The Herrani are now slaves, and their Valorian overlords have overtaken their country, their homes, and enslaved their people.
Kestrel is 17, she doesn't have a lot of options in life. At 20, citizens are either forced to marry or enlist in the military. Kestrel wants neither.
“But when you are faced with only two choices— the military or marriage—don’t you wonder if there is a third, or a fourth, or more, even, than that?”
She has a talent for music, she wants to play the piano...but it is a shameful talent, because music is not an option for a well-born young lady. Only slaves play music.
If the Herrani hadn’t prized music so highly before the war, that, too, might have changed things. But in the eyes of Valorian society, music was a pleasure to be taken, not made, and it didn’t occur to many that the making and the taking could be the same.
One day, Kestrel is dragged to a slave auction. A young "brute" of a slave caught her eyes.
His name is Smith. The auctioneer wants him to sing, to put on an exhibition. He doesn't.
Kestrel wants him, she feels inexplicably drawn to him. She bids an astonishingly high sum for Smith.
Kestrel drew in a shaky breath. Her bones felt watery. What had she done?
The pointy-chinned woman snickered. “Looks like someone’s suffering the Winner’s Curse. The Winner’s Curse is when you come out on top of the bid, but only by paying a steep price.”
Smith is a smith, or rather, a blacksmith. His real name is Arin.
After her purchase, Kestrel tries to forget about him, but she can't. Amidst the high society gatherings, amidst her suitors, among them, is the earnest, handsome Ronan. Ronan is her best friend's brother. He has long held her in his regard.
Shouldn’t she care? Didn’t she welcome Ronan’s attention?
She doesn't. It is Arin who holds her thoughts.
Unbeknownst to Kestrel, Arin has his own secrets and plans, and which might cost Kestrel's life.
The fate of two nations are at stake.
The Setting & Plot: This is your typical high fantasy, and it is very well done. I have no complaints as to the world building whatsoever.
There is no info-dumping, and everything made sense. The two nations and how one came to enslave the other are well explained. I love the minor details, like the fact that music is looked down by the conquering Valorians because it was valued by the country which they defeated.
I absolutely loved the political plot. The second half of the book was amazing, and it saved this book. The first half of the plot plodded on, cluttered with Kestrel's indecisiveness, Arin's prickly behavior, peppered with balls and sneaking music sessions and shopping and suitors. There were very minor but definite clues as to what would transpire in the second half of the book, everything was very subtly done.
There are mysterious deaths, hints of unrest, duels...minor nuances that led up to the tremendous and shocking events of the second half.
Kestrel: She took a really fucking long time to grow on me. There are some characters whom I absolutely adore and admire from the very beginning: Kestrel is not one of them. She is initially...not so much weak as indecisive. She's the sort of typical teenaged girl in that she's not sure of what she wants in life, except that she doesn't want to be what her father expects her to be. Which is a soldier.
Initially, Kestrel appears spineless. I have to confess I looked down on her for choosing to want to play music over that of a bad-ass soldier girl.
"...she had no natural talent for fighting."
Not only that, her skill is in being a military strategist. Kestrel has a brilliant mind for strategy. She chooses not to exercise it. She flaunts society's rules instead of helping her nation establish its dominance.
“Imagine how the empire would benefit if you truly worked with me,” he said, “and used that talent to secure its territories, instead of pulling apart the logic of customs that order our society.”
“Our customs are lies.” Kestrel’s fingers clenched the fragile stem of her glass.
She is indecisive about everything. She doesn't want to get married. She doesn't want a career. Kestrel is the sort of girl who just wants to float along in life doing whatever she fucking pleases, without consequence.
She is weak, even when it comes to being a mistress in her own home. I like that she is gentle with her slaves, but there is a line between kind discipline, and cruelty, and Kestrel doesn't seem to be able to distinguish where that line lies. Kestrel constantly lets Arin, her SLAVE, talk back to her in front of her friends, in front of her peers.
“What did you say?” Arin whispered in Valorian. He was staring at Jess. “Of course you have no gods. You have no souls.”
She doesn't do anything about his rudeness, his VERY PUBLIC rudeness.
She allows Arin to walk all over her, while he is his slave. She gives him the ability to bargain for his cooperation. She allows her own reputation to be sullied because it was rumored that they were lovers. She receives mocking letters because she cannot put these horrible, shameful rumors to rest:
Do you think you are the first? it read. The only Valorian to take a slave to her bed? Poor fool!
Let me tell you the rules.
Do not be so obvious.
Kestrel puts herself in danger for him, she puts herself up to a DUEL, risking her own life for a slave when all he would have gotten are lashes in punishment. She gives no thoughts to her father, to the fact that she is his only surviving relative, his heir. All she thinks about is saving fucking Arin's skin.
His hands fell away. “You, too. What a stupid thing for you to do. Why did you do that? Why would you do such a stupid thing?”
“You might not think of me as your friend,” Kestrel told Arin, “but I think of you as mine.”
Bold words. It doesn't change the fact that her decision was was fucking stupid.
To my relief, in the second half of the book, Kestrel grew. She develops a spine. She learns to listen to herself. She learns to stand up for herself. She learns that it is wisest not to entirely trust someone.
Arin: An asshat, but thankfully, one that also grew on me. Arin has his own incentive, his own plans. My problem with Arin is that he's transparent as fuck. Arin wouldn't know subtlety it if bit him in the ass.
A slave is not supposed to talk back to his mistress. A slave has no rights to demand anything of his mistress. A slave with a plot should blend in, instead of sticking out. A slave with a higher purpose shouldn't do fucking stupid things like get caught stealing a book, in doing so, risking his own fucking life.
“He has stolen something.”
There must be some mistake. Arin was intelligent, far too canny to do something so dangerous. He must know what happened to Herrani thieves.
Nope, no mistake. He did something incredibly stupid that risks his entire mission for the love of a sentimental fucking book.
I did eventually grow to like Arin. It is a hard life, and Arin has had to suffer a lot for his mission. I understand his anger, I understand his frustration, and I do admire him. It has been a hard life for Arin. He has been enslaved since childhood, and I truly felt for his fate.
"Swallow your pride.”
“Maybe that’s not as easy for me as it is for you.”
He wheeled on her. “It’s not easy for me,” he said through his teeth. “You know that it’s not. What do you think I have had to swallow, these past ten years? What do you think I have had to do to survive?”
The Romance: Bleh. Bleeeeeeeeeh. I really wish there wasn't a love triangle. Especially when I sympathized so much with "the other guy." The really, really nice other guy about whom Kestrel can't be bothered to give a fuck. Ronan ;_;
She tried to push away thoughts of Arin on the auction block, of the look in his eyes when he asked where his honor was, of him swearing at her guards in his tongue. She held Ronan more tightly, pressing her cheek against his chest.
Thinking about someone else when you're in another guy's arms. DAMN YOU, KESTREL.
I liked the fact that there was no insta-love. I liked the fact that Arin and Kestrel's relationship took time to develop, but it felt like Arin found his way into Kestrel's heart too fast, too soon.
Why didn’t he come to her?
She could make him. If she sent an order, he would obey.
But she didn’t want his obedience. She wanted him to want to see her.
I liked the fact that they are both willing to admit their faults, and I like the fact that they communicate. The romance in this book was adequate, and much more believable than in most YA fiction.
Overall: A good book, with a considerable amount of depth in world building, plot, and characters.
Quotes taken from an uncorrected proof subject to change in the final edition.