In Kestrel’s world, war and marriage are the only options open to her. Her father, the revered General Trajan, expects her to follow in his footsteps, conquering territories for the Valorian emperor. She would rather play music and study the people around her.
Finding herself in the slave markets one day, she encounters a Herrani slave who seems as determined to escape his fate as she is to escape hers. One rash decision later, she is reluctant the owner of Arin. She becomes the talk of the town due to the ridiculously high price she paid for him, and this price may grow steeper over time.
This is possibly the hardest review I’ve written this year. I have such conflicting feelings about The Winner’s Curse that I’ve put off writing about it for far too long. The novel is getting amazing reviews online, and they are well-deserved. The world-building is wonderful, the writing superb, and yet…
About halfway through the book there is a massive world-altering event that shifts the entire dynamic. It’s stunningly brave writing to have a shift of this calibre, and there’s no way that the story would have worked without it. The shift isn’t the problem, but it’s the way things change after the shift that kills me.
A change of atmosphere is to be expected. It’s the change in the characters that I can’t come to terms with. Arin’s character development might be a bit heavily influenced by his romantic lead status, but it is otherwise believable. Kestrel, on the other hand, becomes someone that I don’t recognise. She’s initially intelligent and alert. She is a strategist who watches the people around her until she knows their weaknesses. Her strength isn’t in combat but in her mental prowess, and she knows it. Aside from playing the piano, it’s the one area in her life that she actively tries to improve.
Despite this, the moment that her strategic side is desperately needed, she stops using it. For maybe the last quarter of the book she stagnates, becoming the opposite of the dynamic character she was at the beginning. There’s more action here than in the rest of the book, but it just crawled for me. Every page I turned I was waiting for her to do something – anything – and it didn’t happen.
Strangely enough, the thing that I expected to bother me most didn’t bother me at all. I’ve rarely seen slavery written well, unless it has been written by someone who has been a slave rather than for purposes of entertainment. I actually hiked this book right up to the top of my reading list because I was so sure that I would dislike it and wanted to get it out of the way earlier rather than later. I should have had some faith. The slavery aspect is handled with the care it deserves. Kestrel has an interest in the Herrani people and treats them respectfully, so when she meets Arin there’s already a framework for friendship.
There’s a lot happening in The Winner’s Curse, but it is a love story at heart, and this aspect of the novel is handled brilliantly. There’s no insta-love in Kestrel and Arin’s story; they have to work hard to get there. Arin is full of anger at all Valorians; he initially makes no exceptions for Kestrel. It’s only when he realises that she isn’t out to break or conquer him that things start to change. For her, it’s finding someone who can match her mentally and someone who doesn’t expect her to fit the standard Valorian model.
After having finished The Winner’s Curse I’m desperate to get my hands on the second book in the series. Not because of the cliff-hanger ending, but because I need to see if Rutkoski can recreate the magic that I felt at the beginning of the novel without resorting to the unwarranted plot-devices at the end.
Winner’s Curse – Marie Rutkoski
Bloomsbury (March 4, 2014)