Release Date: March 4, 2014
Published by: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
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.
1. (+) Kestrel, the protagonist - In some ways Kestrel reminds me of Bitterblue. Both are competent enough to defend themselves should they fall into dangerous situations, but their assets do not lie in physical tests of strength. For that reason they can be underestimated, but they are both strong female characters with capable minds and fiery temperaments when their values are threatened. Kestrel, in particular, is a strategist, and the cold edges of her mind derived from her logical perspective are softened by her love for music. She is easy to like not only for her cleverness and the unfairness of her situation (marriage or military) but also for her compassion - she does not relish the attitude adopted by other Valorian conquerors with regard to the Herrani, and as shown in the first chapter, finds herself sick at the auction.
2. (+) Arin, the romantic interest - It's hard not to like Arin, or at least to feel pity for or try to understand his situation. Of course he's angry. Of course he's focused, rebellious, and secretive. As a slave he does not have the luxury of being open, and he refuses to be happy about what's happened; he has years worth of memories of better times and times spent horridly as a slave, separated from anyone and everything he loves. There's more to him than this, but I don't want to accidentally include a spoiler, and suffice it to say that he provides a good match for Kestrel. It's obvious to see the chemistry between him and Kestrel because they also have similar personalities.
3. (+) Romance - Probably one of my favorite aspects is that the romance works in tangent with the character and plot development. It doesn't overwhelm the main plot, and while forbidden romances can sometimes include too much angst, this one never strays into that realm. The characters also don't stop being who they are because of the romance, and that provides the majority of the struggle and tension underlying their interactions. This is probably one of my favorite types of romances too because it's subtle and sneaky and fits entirely with who the characters are and the feel of the novel at large.
4. (+) World-building - The first question you should ask yourself is whether you're okay with not knowing all the details of the world right now. Rutkoski gives just enough details for you to feel immersed in the world for this novel, but it's obvious that things have been left out so they can be explored in future novels (e.g. other peoples like the barbarians, etc.). Here we have subtle hints as to the different customs adopted by the Herrani and Valorians, the differences in how their houses are organized and how they viewed the other culture, and in their religious beliefs and what they valued in daily life. We're exposed to the Valorian arrogance and degrading perspective they take with regard to the Herrani and vice versa, and how the Valorians came to rule the Herrani.
5. (+) Plot - To me the brilliancy of this plot was not because it was unpredictable but because it excels at building your anticipation for the events to come. Every scene seems to be doing more than two things at once - promoting the romance, your understanding of the world and characters, etc. etc. And the tension and conflict are perfectly executed, constantly there for the entire novel.
6. (+/-) Characters - I loved learning more about them - about Cheat, General Trajan, Jess, Ronan, etc. - but at the same time, never felt entirely attached to or invested in anyone beyond Kestrel and Arin. Even still, I loved this book and not feeling attached to the other characters did not prevent me from feeling invested in the novel at large. This book is mainly about Kestrel and Arin and their people, and so the other characters naturally fall into the background.
7. (+) A Little Bit of Everything - Perhaps my favorite part of this book is that it really has a bit of everything for every reader. There are compelling emotional stakes for both main characters and a forbidden, sweet and steamy romance that doesn't derail from the main plot but instead adds an underlayer of tension throughout the novel. There are action scenes appropriate to all the hints of unrest and sure to satisfy Cashore fans who wanted more of that from her novels. The book's set in a pseudo-historical Greco-Roman inspired world, and I don't know about you, but I loved the show Rome and I loved Megan Whalen Turner's Byzantine-Greek inspired series, and I particularly loved how the two were meshed into this fantastical world from Marie Rutkoski. There are a lot of literary allusions that add extra layers that are well worth pondering on or examining in your free time. They give the book an extra layer of depth and dimension that's not necessarily found in every YA novel. (I particularly like the bit about girls either joining the military or becoming married, and how Kestrel's father says "a woman soldier has proved her strength, and so doesn't need protection" (25). It seems to engage with a lot of the discussion on strong female characters and how they do not necessarily need to be "kick-ass" or wield all sorts of weapons.) And this book is masterfully plotted, every scene infused with multiple purposes so that you're never left questioning why it's been included. So basically, readers who are more action-oriented, or character-oriented, or plot-oriented - all of them can find something to love in this novel.
8. (+) The Writing - Gorgeous. I am reminded of a mix between Cashore's more literary style and the style in Cruel Beauty (somewhere between purposeful, practical prose and poetic lilt). I'd say it's more similar to Cashore's writing style, though, and this may be one of the only comparisons to her work that I've found really and truly accurate.
9. (+) The Pacing - More action-oriented readers might find this a tad slow, but I thought that its pacing was perfect for the literary-commercial vibe and allowed for us to get attached to the characters and understand the Herrani/Valorian situation before upping the stakes.
10. (+) The Cover - This is a beautiful cover that's sure to catch the attention of any bookstore browser. It captures part of Kestrel's inner struggle and that dress is, I think, included in the novel. I wish it also hinted at the pseudo-historical fantasy feel though.
This is a surefire win for Kristin Cashore fans. I know that that comparison is used a lot in YA marketing, so I am not using it lightly. I said in my pre-review that it would also appeal to Megan Whalen Turner, Rae Carson, Rachel Hartman, and Melina Marchetta fans. MWT fans because the world reminds me of hers and because the feel of the central romance somewhat reminds of that in her novels. Plus the strong character development and political intrigue. Rae Carson fans because Kestrel and Arin's cleverness and strategy are shown in the way that Elisa's cleverness and ability to rule are shown, and it's clear that both Arin and Kestrel respect each for that, again shown in the way that I've heard happens with the central romance in Carson's trilogy. Hartman fans because there's a similar balance between the romance, political intrigue, and internal character struggle. Marchetta fans because I think her Lumatere Chronicles would make for great comparison to The Winner's Curse and because they have similar literary-commercial vibes to me. Basically I would recommend this novel to all fantasy lovers.
The Winner's Curse is an absolute gem of a pseudo-historical / Greco-Roman inspired fantasy, packed with breathtaking star-crossed romance, strong strategist main characters, and enough political intrigue, action, and tension sure to enthrall its own legion of fans.
Don't believe me? This one has already gotten rave reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. And here are other reviews:
[5 stars] Lauren at Love Is Not A Triangle - "This book is so good that you definitely want to read it now so that you can discuss it with friends, and then read it again before book two releases."
[4 stars] Mary Christensen - "This book is excellent!"
[3 stars] Pam at Bookalicious - "I definitely want to read book two. I think it's going to be full of action."
[2 stars] Fiona - "I approved of a lot of elements, but I regret to say I didn't enjoy it very much."
[1 star] at the time that I am writing this (1/12/2014), there are no one star reviews.