It's so difficult to write a review for a book that I disliked but also partially liked at the same time, and even harder to digest everything after seeing how high the reviews for this book are. As some other people have mentioned it, I feel like I must've read a completely different book than everyone else. I wasn't blown away by the romance, although the concept of "the winner's curse" was one that I enjoyed and reminded me of a similar topic covered in my last year's philosophy class.
This book is a lot about the forbidden romance but with much more emphasis on the whole tug-of-war when it comes to wanting but not being able to have it. Kestrel and Arin are ridiculously indecisive in this sense to the point where the romance becomes a bore. It's hard to sympathize for either of them when they both happen to be such frustrating characters in their own right. Kestrel was set up to be a strong character that fights for what she believes in and has her own rebellious streak against society, such as her piano playing. But several of her actions betray this character set up, such as the way she often swallows others' remarks or seems to go along with her own confusion or illogicality. Arin was difficult to like in general since he was set up as a slave that was acting like privileged royalty from the very beginning. Then all of a sudden they develop feelings for each other and start taking one step towards each other to then take ten steps apart. It was frustrating to read because it took the notion of forbidden romance to a level that was beyond plausible and empathetic. Sure there were a few lines Arin says that pulled at my heart strings, especially his closing words which are also the last sentence of the book. Otherwise however I felt that Kestrel couldn't sort out her priorities and Arin had gone so deep into being an unpleasant ass of a character that when his character did begin changing it didn't feel right somehow.
A lot of this book felt like the reader was expected to just go along with it, like the history of the war between Valorians and Herrani people. I wanted more of a history, a backstory, some meat and substance when it comes to the characters and world that I'm reading about. This book didn't do much in that aspect. As many mentioned before me the first quarter, at least, of the book went by very slow, presumably with the attempt to set up characters and develop relationships, although that didn't go very well for me. Maybe this vagueness in terms of world building will be fixed in the second book where we'll finally find out more details about Arin and the war that occurred, but as of right now I have no idea why it was such a significant thing or what exactly it is that makes the Valorian and Herrani people two distinct groups.
This isn't a fantasy particularly, nor is it really that much of a dystopian novel. It's a fusing of genres that attempts to pull off something interesting and add a new spin to stories similar to it, but for me it failed. The hype of the book flew straight over my head, although I must admit that ending did work on my heartstrings. I will be picking up the next book so see if, maybe, the relationship between the two of them will get any more plausible and less all over the place. I'm also pretty sure there was a bunch of other stuff I forgot to mention, and this is perhaps a good example of what this book is like: it will leave you pretty confused and not sure what to make of it, especially in the romance department, since that's really the only thing you can focus on with such a vague setting and a plot that makes you simply shrug and play along with it.