In the conquered colony of Herran, Kestrel lives with her father, the renowned top general of the Valorian Empire, a strict man who is constantly gone fighting battles for the Emperor. Valoria had conquered Herran over ten years before and made its citizens slaves. Though Kestrel doesn’t like the slavery practice, Valorian rule has made this a fact of their society, but Kestrel has sympathies for the Herran since her nurse was one and she mothered her after her real mother died.
Since Kestrel is seventeen, she is rapidly approaching her future: whether she will join the military as her father wishes (despite not being very gifted in physical pursuits) or she must marry. When Kestrel attends a slave auction on accident, she somehow finds herself the owner of a beautiful yet defiant young man, later known as Arin. Her feeling of kinship with him grows as she finds herself drawn to his rebellious nature, and as they get closer, she discovers the price of buying him, a human being, might actually be a lot higher than she ever anticipated–an occurrence known as the winner’s curse.
Kestrel has escaped from Herran and the rising rebellion led by Arin and his associates and made it to the Empire where she’s brokered a deal for keeping Herran as a territory allowing them to govern themselves but pay tribute to the Empire while the Emperor and his forces concentrate on nearby Dacra. In exchange, Kestrel will be the bride of the young heir to the Empire, Verex. Rather than still considering herself loyal to the Empire, Kestrel only knows she would do anything to try and save Arin’s life, since he will be among the first to be killed in retribution from the Empire. The Emperor has congratulated himself in finding a suitable bride for his son, especially since she is the daughter of his esteemed general and friend, earning the love of the military and ensuring his soft son has a wife who is capable of diplomacy and shrewd calculation. However, when Arin comes for the nuptials, everything falls apart as Arin can’t understand Kestrel’s motives and compromises her cover, and Kestrel faces the possibility of her betrayal and potential death.
After Kestrel was sent to a work camp in the north for her betrayal of the Emperor, she is believed to be married to the prince and honeymooning until her unfortunate death. Meanwhile, Arin is preparing for war against Valoria until he discovers that Kestrel, whom he thought was using him, was actually his spy and was captured. Arin secretly steals away to rescue her, bringing her back a changed woman, one whose prison and resulting drug abuse has caused a mental affliction and she must relearn everything about herself and her memories. Arin is also learning to trust and lead his people and maintain the alliance with Dacra. Will they manage to defeat the Empire and gain freedom once and for all?
This was a solid series! I very much enjoyed reading it, and did so pretty quickly. It has a lot of action and romance while also having good world building and well-rounded characters. The ending was satisfying even if I thought it could have had more meat towards the end, especially with resolving Arin/Kestrel’s relationship and the ones with Prince Verex and their Dacran allies. This was mostly clean, and suitable for at least 8th grade and above. One of the best things I appreciated was how Kestrel grew up throughout the series. First she was fairly intimidated and scared of her father’s reaction, but she slowly learns to stand up for herself and what she believes in until the severe consequences no longer matter just so she can achieve what she believes is right. It’s very much a lesson in self-advocacy and coming-of-age.