Written by: Marie Rutkoski
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release date: March 4th 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Source: Borrowed from a friend
Buy: B&N, Amazon, Book Depository
Add on: Goodreads
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
I don’t even know where to start with this review. The Winner’s Curse is amazing. I was blown away by the nuanced characters and their complex moral dilemmas; by the vivid writing and the incredibly detailed worldbuilding; and especially by the relationship between Kestrel and Arin, the slowest of all slow-burn romances. The Winner’s Curse was everything I wanted it to be, and nothing like I expected.
Kestrel, Arin, and Kestrel/Arin
Kestrel, the main character, is not your typically-kickass female MC — her strengths lie in her intelligence and mind for military strategy. I loved that about her. She’s also not afraid to pursue her passion — music — even when it’s not deemed “acceptable” by society in general. When Kestrel happens to be present at a slave auction, she sees Arin (defiant, handsome, and purportedly a good singer), and she buys him — not out of a desire to own a slave, but because she sees in him a kindred spirit.
There’s a lot more going on with Arin than meets the eye, though. Arin is somewhat of a mystery — undeniably intriguing, but vaguely suspicious until you realize what’s going on with him. As I learned more and more about him, and his past, and his current motives, my heart completely melted for him. He’s probably my favorite character in the book, despite there being so few sections that are from his POV. (Please please please let there be more in Book 2!!!)
Initially, Kestrel and Arin don’t interact much; but as they begin spending more time together, their feelings become… complicated, to say the least. Their scenes together are fraught with tension and feelings that neither can act upon, and they are the definition of a slow-burn romance, with an immediate spark, but a deliciously slow resolution. Kestrel and Arin are incredibly nuanced and complex characters, both of whom know and appreciate the impossibility of their situation.
And, while I spent the majority of the book wanting to reach into the pages and push their faces together, I love love loved the time that was taken to realistically develop their characters, to a point where they finally acknowledge their feelings for each other. I’ll complain nonstop about how long it took Kestrel and Arin to actually do something about their feelings for each other, but not because it was unnecessarily drawn-out. At the end of the day, my “complaints” are just proof that Rutkoski did her job in making me feel for these characters, to root for them, and feel the tension in their relationship right along with them.
One thing that really struck me about The Winner’s Curse is the way it deals with the complexity of individuals within a larger (and obvious) moral dichotomy. (Erm, please forgive my weird word-choice there — not sure how else to describe it…) When it came to the actual “plot” of the book, which is the revolt of the Herrani against their Valorian captors, I was expecting the obvious “Slavery, bad. Fighting for freedom, good” situation. And that’s essentially what this is, in the simplest terms. The Herrani have been defeated and enslaved by the Valorians, and there’s an undercurrent of revolt simmering just below the surface.
When it came to my expectations, however, I was blindsided. I was expecting the Valorians to be unquestionably bad (well, I mean, except for Kestrel), since they’re the nation who conquered the Herrani. But the issue of slaves vs. captors was dealt with in an incredibly complex manner. Many of the people fighting for the Herrani’s freedom are willing do things just as awful as — if not worse than — the Valorians who enslaved them. And many Valorians (including Kestrel’s father, a general in the army) were unexpectedly sympathetic characters themselves. My feelings were so confused. The Winner’s Curse does not offer a clear-cut dividing line between the two sides — though certain actions are undeniably immoral, the people themselves are complex, and there’s good and bad on both sides.
The Minor Characters
I have a deep appreciation for authors who can write minor characters who a) still feel well-developed despite little “screen time”, and b) who break all my expectations about what purpose I initially think that character will serve.
First, there’s Jess, Kestrel’s best friend. Jess loves dresses, and shopping, and dances. My expectations? That she would be a trite, throwaway character, there to help illustrate the difference between Kestrel and the other “silly” society ladies. Instead, the friendship between Jess and Kestrel felt absolutely real — the two enjoy different things, but they both truly care for each other, and Jess is strong and sassy and I loved her to pieces.
Ronan, Jess’s brother, is a real flirt — with Kestrel, at least. He’s a sweetheart, and I loved him, and in any other circumstances I might have ended up being torn between Ronan and Arin in this “love triangle”. But there is no love triangle. Kestrel’s feelings toward him are clear from the start, and while they’re good friends, and they would technically make a good match, I get the feeling Kestral would enjoy being Jess’s sister-in-law more than Ronan’s wife.
And then there’s Kestrel’s father. He’s on the “wrong” side of the slaves vs. captors conflict, as are all the Valorians are who conquered the Herrani and enslaved them. And as a general, I was expecting him to be a detestable character. But I actually ended up being struck by his rigid but truly loyal affection towards his daughter…
These characters, and all the moral issues woven throughout, are just so complicated!
The worldbuilding in this book is almost beyond compare, at least within the YA Fantasy books that I’ve read so far. There is so much historical depth to The Winner’s Curse, it just blew me away. The only other series I can compare it to is Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, but even that is based in sort of a Russian background (which is one reason I love it). Really, The Winner’s Curse is wholly original, and it feels almost like historical fiction, steeped in details that are vivid and effortlessly portrayed.
I finished this book completely at a loss for words. The Winner’s Curse is rich with detail, tension, and true feeling — and that goes for both the plot, and the characters. Everything about it is just incredible, and I can’t even decide what impressed me more — the incredible worldbuilding, or Kestrel and Arin and their flawlessly-portrayed relationship.
If I have one true complaint, it’s that book 2 is so far away. The ending, while perfect (in my opinion), does not see a concrete resolution to Kestrel and Arin’s plight, and the final page left me in an awful/delicious mess of feels. Book 2 cannot get here soon enough.