The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner's Trilogy #1
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published on: Marth 4 2014
Genres: Young Adult
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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.
Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, and it has been since I was old enough to make my own bedtime story requests. My appreciation has grown and evolved as I have likewise grown and evolved, and as an adult, I’ll pretty much take it however I can it, be it Dark, Epic, High, YA Fantasy, or otherwise. These days, however, I mostly stick to YA Fantasy b/c the books don’t typically come in a series of 12(ish), 1000(ish) page books, and are therefore less of a commitment.
SO any time a new YA Fantasy series starts getting major buzz, my ears perk up. Then I read early reviews, prequels, and five chapter previews while the anticipation builds (and builds). And then on the release day, I wake up, turn on my Kindle, check out of the real world, and start devouring. Sometimes the book lives up to the hype, and sometimes it doesn’t, but until The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, they were all what they were advertised to be—Fantasy.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines Fantasy Literature as:
Imaginative fiction dependent for effect on strangeness of setting (such as other worlds or times) and of characters (such as supernatural or unnatural beings). Examples include William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Science fiction can be seen as a form of fantasy, but the terms are not interchangeable, as science fiction usually is set in the future and is based on some aspect of science or technology, while fantasy is set in an imaginary world and features the magic of mythical beings. (Emphasis mine)
The Winner’s Curse had exactly one-half of those features—the imaginary world/other times part. It was completely devoid of the magic or FANTASTICAL aspect, and a cool map does not a fantasy make.
That’s not to say I didn’t like it. That’s actually the (other) frustrating part. I didn’t want to like it. I wanted to only be filled with righteous indignation at the gross misrepresentation of what kind of book this was. But that would be misleading, and as we’ve all been told over and over again (most likely by our mothers) two wrongs do not make a right.
SO aside from the mislabeling (which is, admittedly, a BIG deal), I have very few complaints. The front-half was a bit slow, both plot-wise and in the budding relationship between Kestrel and Arin (our MCs), but the latter-half was very well-paced, and let’s be honest—if Kestrel and Arin’s relationship had developed quickly, there would have been derision of the insta-love variety.
I’ve also seen a lot of complaints about Kestrel that accuse her of being a spineless ninny, and while I understand how that conclusion might be reached, I respectfully disagree. Kestrel, while acknowledged to be only a mediocre fighter, is a master strategist, and like any master strategist, she plays to her strengths. Whether that entails manipulating someone into her desired outcome when a direct path would be spurned, based on her role in society as a non-military female, or blackmailing an opponent she has neither the strength, nor skill to beat into throwing a duel, Kestrel never backs down.
Kestrel is the daughter of the General of a warmongering people, the Valorians<——can you guess which traits might be highly esteemed by this culture? Hmmm?? The Valorians, over the past decade or so have swept over the lands, obliterating anything they could not enslave. The Herrani are one such enslaved people who, prior to their way of life being destroyed, were a peaceful culture that highly valued education and artistic pursuits.
That may sound arbitrary, but it’s actually the first of several reversals of the expected roles that Kestrel and Arin are supposed to play: Kestrel, raised to join the army and further the empire, is a day-dreaming, pianist, while Arin, a Herrani, (who becomes aquainted with Kestrel when she PURCHASES him at a SLAVE AUCTION) is raised to be a scholar and musician, but displays uncommon military aptitude.
Once Arin joins Kestrel’s household, they begin to form a relationship (against both their better judgement and their desires). Kestrel is intrigued by Arin’s obvious intelligence (not to mention his slave-labor sculpted shoulders), and Arin is flummoxed by a Valorian who not only seems to genuinely care about her Herrani nurse, but isn’t jonesing to kill or subjugate something.
Stuff happens and the first installment of this trilogy concludes on a positively devastating note. Truly. It was a gut punch. One that leaves you with absolutely no idea how Rutkoski will engineer a HEA from all the havoc she’s wrecked. Don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .
The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is the promising start of her new (half) fantasy trilogy. Star-crossed lovers are popular for a reason, and Rutkoski takes this ageless story and makes it new. So new that perhaps I don’t mind the absence of magic and mythical beings after all.