6 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner's CurseTitle: The Winner’s Curse

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.)

And yet…

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

Reading Next: The Troop by Nick Cutter

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  1. That is, in an auction the winner of the auction (the highest bidder) will tend to pay more than the asset is worth because of incomplete information or any other number of factors.
  2. What will book 2 be called? LET ME PLACE A WAGER: War of Attrition. No? Any takers?


  • Sigaloenta
    March 11, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    I also found that the hype didn’t correspond to the reality. For all the praise of the ‘worldbuilding’, it all felt kind of hollow, in part because Kestrel was presented as in many ways a “rebel” against the constraints of her society from the beginning. Both she and the setting had the most depth and character in places like her interactions with her father, or her determination to defend the interests of the Valorians, that is, where Kestrel was having to think through what her values were and where the differed from what other people wanted from her.

    I also thought that the class-difference/conqueror-conquered element was under-developed: Arin never seems to face any restrictions or consequences, but, rather than explore the ways in which what the Valorians probably define as “good treatment” are actually restrictive and humiliating, the novel kept half-heartedly telling me that he was being maltreated while showing him having almost complete impunity. And on Kestrel’s side, she never seemed to feel any disdain, or disregard, or bias, or even sense of her own power as a member of the master-class that would have clouded the relationship. All that it took to overcome the “barrier” of slave and mistress was the mutual admission of “I know I shouldn’t love you but I do.” And this just isn’t enough, when one party is in the absolute power of the other!

    That said, I guess there was enough interest to keep me reading, and I will probably check out the sequels.

  • Sigaloenta
    March 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Also: I’m thinking “Prisoners’ Dilemma” for one of the sequels, right?

  • Victoria Van Vlear
    March 11, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks for the review. It’s unfortunate that so many young adult novels with lots of potential lack proper depth. Just because a book is written for a younger audience doesn’t give it the excuse to be shallow.

  • hapax
    March 12, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    Just to offer a counter view, I simply loved THE WINNER’S CURSE and felt it more than lived up to the hype.

    It would be tedious, spoiler-iffic, and frankly a little rude to offer a point / counter-point to all your criticisms. Suffice it to say I strongly disagree with some of them (e.g., I thought Kestrel was indeed “exceptional”, in a heroic way, but not at all Mary-Sue-ish), and agree with some others (e.g., the contrived plotting) but they didn’t bother me the way they did you.

    I’m only offering this up because I know that others here respect your reviews as much as I do, and I’m pretty sure I would have skipped it if I hadn’t read it before your review. I would hate for this book to miss those readers for whom it would entrance as much as it did me!

    (I’m not in any way affiliated with Marie Rutkoski, except that I have admired her books from her first publication. Yet, as much as I like her storytelling, none of her books quite … “clicked”, I guess, before this one.)

  • Thea
    March 14, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Sorry to be so late here! Thanks for the comments, everyone 🙂

    Sigaloenta – Completely agree on all counts. Two things in particular: Kestrel’s relationship with her father (one of my favorite things about the book), and the great grand love between Kestrel and Arin that has no stable or believable foundation considering the huge power imbalance between the two.

    Also, HAH, yes Prisoner’s Dilemma! DEFECT ALWAYS! Let’s get some game theory up in here.

    Victoria – I don’t necessarily think this is a YA/young reader category failing! Some of the best, most complex worlds I’ve ever discovered in literature were from YA books… it’s just a shame that The Winner’s Curse wasn’t one of them!

    hapax – Fair enough, and you’re certainly not in the minority! Goodreads has a plethora of glowing reviews, and I completely understand why others would love this book. Alas, it’s just not the book for me. That said, I’ll plan on reading the next book as I did enjoy this one.

    Also, if I recall correctly, you also were a big fan of The Burning Sky (another book that I had lukewarm feelings about)? I think that’s an excellent “If you liked X, you’ll like Y” comparison – if the things in that book didn’t work for you, you’ll probably not be so enamored with The Winner’s Curse.

    PS – I do urge everyone to read this book – any book – for themselves and form their own opinion. Naturally!

  • hapax
    March 14, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I agree. I think THE WINNER’S CURSE and THE BURNING SKY make excellent readalikes!

  • Lizzie
    March 21, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Oh, boy, agreed: the writing was beautiful and the romance was encompassing. I thought about Arin and Kestrel obsessively for two days after reading it. What you didn’t mention, but I experienced: the pacing at the end of the book felt rushed compared with the beginning, starting with Kestrel’s…er, boat ride [to avoid spoilers]. Important political stuff happens in too few pages.

    I thought the historical allusion might have been to the invasion of Italy by the Visigoths, resulting in Alaric I’s sack of Rome in 410 (the geography works, as does the hair color, maybe?). As I read, I was interested that the dynamic that occurs in most historical examples of one people conquering another was minimized here: plundering, pillaging, burning, exodus of refugees, rape–in short, absolute devastation of properties and lives. The estates we see in TWC are intact down to the instruments on the wall and china in the cabinets; the surviving male citizens are kept as slaves, in their own hometowns (in private barracks where they can plot their revenge), rather than shipped off to be worked to death in mines and quarries; aristocratic women become house servants, not brutalized sex slaves or killed. This is particularly noticeable given that the action of the novel takes place only 10 years after the siege–I would have presumed horrific conditions for the conquered, “cleansing,” and damaged countryside would still be prevalent. To be this settled and relatively bucolic for the Valorians, I would have expected that more time had passed. (I think Rutkoski probably wanted to make Arin’s cause more urgent to him personally, but it makes the time frame feel rushed for me, in geo-political terms.)

    As for the winner’s curse, I agree that it’s mostly a catch-phrase here and oversimplifies the economic concept. A more subtle treatment might have explored, for instance, the way an auction involves an intrinsic (unknown) value of the item, along with all the bidders’ ex ante expectations of that value, and the fact that ex post, Kestrel’s calculation of Arin’s expected value to her turned out to be wildly underestimated (thus, she didn’t actually suffer the winner’s curse). But perhaps, over the course of the next two books, as they inevitably solve the seemingly intractable war between their peoples, Kestrel will ponder the economics in a more nuanced way!

    And finally, so help me, if the Eastern “barbarians” turn out over the course of the series to in fact be evil just to advance the plot (as they are right now), rather than a third party with valid human worth and sovereignty claims, I will kick and scream.

    But Rutkoski has won me over for now…

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