Author: Marie Rutkoski
Genre: Historical, Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Publication Date: March 2014
Hardcover: 355 Pages
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.
As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions. One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction.
Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin. But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.
Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.
Stand alone or series: First in a trilogy
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print ARC
Why did I read this book: A few reasons. Firstly, I received an amazing ARC package in the mail from the publisher (and yes, that works on me). Secondly, the cover is pretty (yes, that works on me, too). And thirdly – most importantly – I’ve been seeing glowing reviews for this book from trusted sources, which alleviated my fears regarding some of the delicate subject matter (slavery, the romance between a master and slave, and so on). Oh, yeah, and it’s another enormously hyped book for 2014 and, per usual, I needed to know.
The seventeen-year-old daughter of a powerful General of the Valorian Empire, Kestrel leads a fairy sheltered life in the recently conquered lands of the Herrani. Like all Valorian nobles, man and woman alike, Kestrel is trained in basic military arts and self-defense, but her true passions are for stratagem and music. Kestrel has a brilliant, cunning mind honed for games and political power; a talent her Valorian father wishes she’d hone by enlisting for the military. In this society, when an aristocratic Valorian woman comes of adult age, she must choose her future by enlisting in the military or by entering marriage – both futures Kestrel desperately resists. Before she reaches the age of majority, Kestrel takes solace in the escape of her music (an art unappreciated by the ruthless Valorians), and by slipping away to the local town marketplace the play games of chance.
It is here, in the marketplace, that Kestrel’s eye is caught by a slave auction. Arin, the young man on the auction block, is touted as a blacksmith and a singer and Kestrel immediately recognizes something in him that calls to her. And so, she bids. She bids higher than anyone else and wins the auction, at great cost – the so-called Winner’s Curse. What Kestrel doesn’t know is that Arin isn’t just anyone – he’s a fierce Herrani loyalist that has a plan of his own to free his people, and has now insinuated himself in the great General Trajan’s household.
What isn’t in the plans for either Kestrel or Arin, however, is falling in love – and both must weigh the responsibilities they have for their people against the connection they share with each other. The fate of the Empire rests on Kestrel’s shoulders, while the fate of the revolution and freedom of his people rests on Arin’s.
The first book in a planned trilogy, The Winner’s Curse has been welcomed warmly by both bloggers and the trade, receiving numerous rave and starred reviews. Of course, having read all of those rave and starred reviews, I was all the more eager to read this book to see what all the fuss was about. The verdict? Well… it’s mixed. On the one hand, I can understand why this book is so popular and appealing to so many readers – The Winner’s Curse is romantic and grandiose, and nicely explores the dynamics of power and relationships. On the other hand, The Winner’s Curse suffers from underdeveloped worldbuilding, exceptional characters (in the bad way), and contrived plotting.
First, the good. Surprisingly, the most wonderful thing about The Winner’s Curse is the aspect of the book that I feared would be the most problematic: the complex issue of enslavement and the fraught (romantic) relationship between an aristocratic lady and her slave. Inherently, this kind of relationship sets off all kinds of alarm bells as, inherently, the power dynamics of such a relationship (in which one person literally owns the other) isn’t actually romantic. Given that there’s no free will or choice involved, I’m not inclined to buy this type of “romance.” Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the dynamic between the two main characters to be well-crafted, and that the bond between Kestrel and Arin – while totally conflated into an all-encompassing great love – actually works. The ickiness inherent in the romance between slave and master is explored and inverted in the book, which I appreciate; I also appreciate that Kestrel never really leaves the master/slave paradigm in her mind (in fact, it’s the most authentic thing about her character, in my opinion). It’s also worth noting that there’s a larger examination of enslavement and rebellion on a societal scale that occurs in The Winner’s Curse, and should continue to be examined in the future books – this alone is enough to tempt me back to this world.
Also on the positive end of the spectrum, Marie Rutkoski possesses an undeniable gift for storytelling. Her prose is beautifully poetic, capturing the nuances of music, the desire unfolding between two characters, and the unexpected moments of tenderness between a father and daughter (a relationship that I loved very much in this book).
That said… there are other issues.
Much of the plotting – especially towards the ending of the book – is simplistic and exceedingly convenient. (War brewing? NO PROBLEM! We’ll wave that off with a single conversation that takes less than a chapter.) Any obstacle Kestrel faces is effortlessly overcome thanks to her amazing tactical mind. You see, as a character, Kestrel is one of those exceptional heroines. She’s exceptionally talented at piano-playing and at games of skill and chance because she’s exceptionally intelligent and strategic. She doesn’t even care about balls or dresses or what other people think because she’s so much deeper than anyone else. This includes her best friend Jess, who is bubbly and totally obsessed with parties and fashion and dresses, but Kestrel loves her anyway. Similarly, Arin is also exceptionally talented – as a musician, as a blacksmith, and maybe even keener of mind than Kestrel.
Kestrel and Arin’s exceptionalism aside, the more important issue with The Winner’s Curse is the utter lack of real-world consequences for any of Kestrel or Arin’s actions – whether it be killing a very important main figure in the text (waved off in a single paragraph), or Kestrel’s ability to persuade very powerful political figures with her exceptional command of economic principles. Speaking of which, let’s talk a little bit about the eponymous theory. The entire concept and inspiration behind the book is the economic principle of “The Winner’s Curse.” 1 The inclusion of this concept in the text is wholly artificial and gimmicky, especially towards the end of the book when Kestrel takes the time to explain the concept of The Winner’s Curse to a very important political figure (in a poorly-drawn imperfect analogy, no less). That criticism said, I have to admit that an economic concept as a driving force behind a book – a romantic YA book! – is kind of cool.2
This brings me to the most frustrating thing about The Winner’s Curse: the book’s lack of substance. Sure, there are nominally high stakes, but really? This is a book light on repercussions and heavy on trivialities. Supposedly it’s a historical fantasy novel, but lacking any concrete worldbuilding or essential fantasy elements. The world is ostensibly pseudo-Roman empire meets some generally faceless (Greek-ish?) culture, but neither the conquerors nor the vanquished are adequately fleshed out or significantly different from the other cutlure. (That’s to say nothing of the whole lack of ethnic diversity thing, which is problematic when you consider the slavery narrative.)
All these criticisms said, I understand why The Winner’s Curse is a popular book garnering strong early reviews. The romance is sufficiently dramatic and encompassing and the writing is quite beautiful – of course, the actual storyline, individual characters, and substance of the novel are woefully underdeveloped. Still, for all its faults, The Winner’s Curse is an entertaining and competent book – and I’m interested enough to give the series another try.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
She shouldn’t have been tempted.
This is what Kestrel thought as she swept the sailors’ silver off the impromptu gaming table set up in a corner of the market.
“Don’t go,” said one sailor.
“Stay,” said another, but Kestrel cinched her wrist-strap velvet purse shut. The sun had lowered, and caramelized the color of things, which meant that she had played cards long enough to be noticed by someone who mattered.
Someone who would tell her father.
Cards wasn’t even her favorite game. The silver wouldn’t begin to pay for her silk dress, snagged from the splintery crate she had used as a stool. But sailors were much better adversaries than the average aristocrat. They flipped cards with feral tricks, swore when they lost, swore when they won, would gouge the last silver keystone coin out of a friend. And they cheated. Kestrel especially liked it when they cheated. It made beating them not quite so easy.
She smiled and left them. Then her smile faded. This hour of thrilling risk was going to cost her. It wasn’t the gambling that would infuriate her father, or the company she had kept. No, General Trajan was going to want to know why his daughter was in the city market alone.
Other people wondered, too. She saw it in their eyes as she threaded through market stalls offering open sacks of spice, the scents mingling with salty air that wafted from the nearby port. Kestrel guessed the words people didn’t dare whisper as she passed. Of course they didn’t speak. They knew who she was. And she knew what they would say.
Where was Lady Kestrel’s escort?
And if she had no friend or family available to escort her to the market, where was her slave?
Well, as for a slave, they had been left at her villa. Kestrel did not need them.
As for the whereabouts of her escort, she was wondering the same thing.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 6 – Good, but with some sizable reservations
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