Part of me liked this, and part of me thinks all the characters are idiots, and another part of me is just tired of reading about teenagers trying to run countries and junk like that. I have lots more parts of myself that have thoughts that are in conflict with one another, as well.
For instance, the prose is lovely (even if it is in present tense, which: bleeeergh), but because it’s YA, nothing was developed as much as it should be, and plot developments just flew by. On the other hand, plot developments flew by, so if I was bored or didn’t like something, I didn’t have to deal with it long. Then of course there’s the fact that the romance took a backseat to the plotting, and that this book took an entirely different turn from the first, and it looks like the third will take another turn entirely as well. Unfortunately, one aspect of the romance taking a backseat is misunderstanding after misunderstanding, which is one of my least favorite plot machines. I realize these misunderstandings are a function of Kestrel keeping secrets from Arin and trying to fulfill her role as the future empress, but they were exhausting and repetitive. Just when Arin would come close to understanding what was going on with her, something else would happen that would have him turn on her. I was fed up with it by the end of the book, and by the end didn’t care if they ever worked things out.
So basically, in this one Kestrel is preparing to be empress, which means: navigating the imperial court, dealing with the sneaky and evil emperor, getting to know her new fiance, and on top of all that she decides to take on the job of being Herrani’s spy and passing information on to Tensen, the minister of agriculture, whom Arin has sent in his place. But she forbids Tensen from telling Arin she’s the spy, because she doesn’t trust him or something? It felt flimsy to me. And Arin is dealing with what he sees as Kestrel’s betrayal. He spends the entire book considering and reconsidering her actions, sometimes guessing her true motives, but immediately passing them over as unlikely, helped along by her own obfuscations. He spends the second third of the book in a foreign country trying to get allies for Herrani. This could, and should, have been his arc for an entire book–Rutkoski could have gotten SO much mileage out of this, just as Kestrel learning about the court and dealing with the empereror could have been much longer and in more detail. And by not spending as much time dealing in the details of these worlds and characters, everything felt too easy.
Basically, I feel like nothing in this world is fleshed out enough. If you’re going to create a new world and new cultures, you have to give them depth, and I feel like because of the confines of the genre, and because Rutkoski wrote Kestrel and Arin as so preoccupied with each other, a lot of time was wasted that could have been spent on making all the secondary and tertiary characters into real people. Tensen was okay, and the crown prince Verex comes across well, as does Arin’s eastern friend with the mutilated face, but all the rest felt like puppets. The EVIL EMPEROR just pissed me off because I had no read on his motivations, and that made him come across as President Snow 2.0. Kestrel’s father makes a devastating decision at the end of the book that gave me no narrative satisfaction whatsoever, because I didn’t care about him. The same goes for Jess, Kestrel’s supposed best friend, who might have been an interesting character if Rutkoski had spent more time with her. As is, when she made her devastating decision, I just thought she was an idiot. And don’t even get me started on Kestrel and Arin, who spend the whole book trying to act like grown-ups, playing spies and politics, and totally bunging up the whole thing. They make SO many boneheaded moves it got to the point where I expected them to fuck up, and stopped rooting for them not to.
Sometimes I feel like YA is dead to me, but then I remember authors like Marissa Meyer and Rae Carson who are getting it right, and then I feel better about my opinions.
I will still read the last book in this series. Maybe I just need to lower my expectations going forward.