Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Posted March 9, 2014 by Jessica in Jessica, Reviews, Young Adult / 80 Comments

Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
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
Pages: 355
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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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.

Review Icon@!-#Crushing


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.

The premise:

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.

Jessica Signature

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My name is Jessica and I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’m trying my hand at writing, but mostly I read. My favorite genres are Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy, and the YA versions of those genres, but if there is a book of a different color getting lots of buzz, I’ll read it too, just to be informed. If I’m not reading or writing, I’m probably on Goodreads or Pinterest or baking blueberry pies because I love them.


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80 responses to “Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

  1. I loved your review it was very honest and insightful. I just started this book over the weekend and was leery about starting it for two reasons, one fantasy it not normally my thing so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get into it (which hasn’t been the case so far) and two all the hype. I am seldom impressed by books surrounded with hype. And while I would say I am over the moon of this yet (only at about 20%) I am enjoying it.

    • Thank you! And yes, hype is hard for a book to live up to. I tried not to read too many of the reviews b/c I wanted to have an open mind, but when all you see are 5 star ratings, it’s hard to avoid having expectations.

      I think a lot of people who ordinarily don’t like Fantasy will like this b/c it’s not a traditional Fantasy. And if you’re already enjoying it 20% in, then you’ll probably really like it over all. Pretty much everyone (myself included) agrees that things really pick up in the second half 🙂

  2. I have heard great things about this book, but for some reason I thought the release was still some days away.
    After reading about the gut punching end I’m afraid of reading it. I hate cliffhangers, so I don’t know if to be patient and wait for next installment to read them in a row.
    Thank you for your honest review.

  3. Oh my gosh, I totally agree. People kept calling this one fantasy and after I read it, I was confused. There were no fantasy elements! Just an alternate universe or something. But I still enjoyed it, I just get mildly annoyed when people call it fantasy.

  4. I do hate when a book gets overhyped. It makes me really leery…but it also makes me want to read the book (which means the hype worked on me). But I loved this one. The world, while decidedly lacking in magical elements, is very intriguing and Kestrel…I loved her. Her brilliance when it comes to battle tactics and strategy is fabulous.

    Just curious, where would you categorize it? Young adult, certainly. I categorized it as fantasy because it’s another world (minus magic/magical beasts) and isn’t futuristic.

    • I have no idea. And I really thought about it too. I mean it’s the obvious question, right? If it’s not fantasy, then what is it? The best I could come up with was alternate history, but that’s not right b/c there are no overlaps with the real world and the book’s world. OR maybe historical fiction/romance with a twist. It really doesn’t fit into a category.

      That being said, a book doesn’t have to fit neatly into a genre for it to be a good book. I still really liked this book. It’s just not traditional fantasy. Hey, there’s an idea—why don’t we just make up a new sub-genre: nontraditional fantasy. Yes?

  5. Ahhhh!!! *runs screaming in the other room* – I heard such awesome things about this book but I’ve GOT to keep my mind open!! Skimming, skimming, skimming…

    You know, I stopped reading Moning after the first book because of the cliffy. That and all the outfit coordinating with the nailpolish. Mostly the cliffhanger, tho 🙂

    You gave this 4 paws so I have hope 🙂

  6. So this is more or less just a YA story that pretends to be a fantasy? I’m like you, I love fantasy, the more epic, the better! You should definitely try The Time Weaver Chronicles! It’s an adult series, with three books (and they have all been released by now) and they are only around 400 pages each! There are parallel worlds, time travel, magic and epic fights!

    I am glad to know that Winners Curse is not really fantasy, though, because I still want to read it, but I probably would have been a little mad it wasn’t as what it was labeled to be.

    Great review, Jessica 🙂

    • Exactly. And I will definitely check out The Time Weaver Chronicles, it sounds great 🙂

      I’m to happy to help. That’s probably the only reason this wasn’t a 5 star book for me—the aggravation at the false advertising. And thank you, Lexxie!

  7. I love your review. You’re right it’s not really fantasy. Well, I’m quite happy about it because I’m not that into fantasy but it’s a little bit like that too. Well it doesn’t really bother me I confess, but it’s a bit tricky too. I think it was nice to have a heroine like that, not stupid, and who knows what she wants to do and how to do it. I’m was surprised at the end but I’m so curious to see what will happen next now.

    • Yeah, this book is great a great bridge between genres, I think. It’s part historical romance, part fantasy (I’ve been driving myself bonkers trying to figure out where it fits, LOL).

      And me TOO!! Things can’t go down like it looks like they’re going to! I can’t think about it anymore, I’m just going to trust that Rutkoski has a plan 🙂

  8. Listening to this after Anne Bishop will certainly be hard. I am glad I skimmed your review particularly about the fantasy aspect. I think that reason alone is why a lot of peeps liked this. I love all fantasy but like you would have been questioned where some elements of it are.

    • Yeah, that’s quite a switch 😉 And I think that’s why a lot of people (especially people that don’t typically love fantasy) are loving this book too. It’s just a shock for those of us who read fantasy on a regular basis.

  9. Great review! I went to download the audiobook after I read another good review, but it had already only 2 stars for the narrator 🙁 I want listen sooo bad. I’m still tempted to buy it. I know the narrator, and I know she takes some getting use to, and you just made my decision to get it a lot easier.

    • Thank you 🙂 And I’m pretty sure most people who know what they’re getting into will like it. It’s a good story. There’s just no magic. But now that won’t be a surprise for you, and if you’re used to the narrator already . . . *crosses fingers*

  10. Another great review Jessica! Thanks for clarifying the genre, it would be such a disappointment going into it thinking it was going to be fantasy only to find out that it really isn’t. It sounds like it will be a really good read overall 🙂

  11. Aw, sorry to hear that it fell short of what you wanted. I have seen more and more mislabeling lately or books that kinda fit in more than one place.

    • Yeah, mislabeling has been a bit of a problem lately, but I don’t really see where else they could have put this book. It’s kind of without genre. I think I told someone it was a magic-free fantasy/historical romance hybrid, LOL.

  12. It drives me nuts when books are either mislabeled or erroneously compared to a book that is nothing like it, if that makes sense. I have read so many good reviews on this that I squeezed it in my schedule. I am dreading the gut punch ending. Thanks for your insight~

    • It totally makes sense. And that’s the problem with comparing books. No two people read exactly the same book, so same and different are relative. But I think that this IS a good book. Gut punch ending and all. And glad to be of help. Hopefully it will go better for people if they know in advance that this isn’t traditional fantasy. Less of a shock, and all that 😉

  13. Christy

    I really want to read this. I didn’t even realize that it was considered fantasy, though. Mostly for the reason you mentioned. I thought it was just like alternate history, which I wouldn’t consider fantasy. Well at least now I have a heads up for when I start it.

  14. I loved this book and honestly never knew it was being labeled as fantasy. I didn’t really know which genre it fit but knew I loved every word. I’m sort of shocked folks have thought Kestrel was a ninny. I’m with you with disagreeing with that. I thought the book was beautifully done and can’t wait to read the next book.

    • I knew it had been labeled as fantasy from the beginning b/c I LOVE fantasy, but while I was reading and it started looking less and less like fantasy, I started looking it up all over the place (to make sure I hadn’t falsely made an assumption). And Publisher, Goodreads, Amazon, everybody called it fantasy.

      And I loved it too, and can’t wait for the next one. Fantasy or no fantasy 🙂

    • Me too, LOL. Oh, I cannot even imagine the rant I would have had if I hadn’t liked it. It’s one thing for a book to be mislabeled when you like it anyway, but if it’s mislabeled and you don’t like it . . . man, that would not have been pretty 😉

  15. It’s so hard to explain what this book is, for sure. I had to look up “fantasy” as a category as well, and I came across a couple of definitions that pretty much say fantasy books usually feature magic, meaning that they don’t always do, although like you, that was my understanding, too. I wrote in my review that it felt like a historical fantasy, although it didn’t really belong in either fantasy or historicals.

    I’m not sure the publisher is pushing this as a fantasy, though? The blurb seems pretty accurate, and in GoodReads/general shelving, fantasy is the best place to put it. It kind of defies categorization.

    HOWEVER. Marketing confusion aside, I’m glad you enjoyed it, hah. And I’m happy that you like Kestrel as well, she’s the sort of introspective heroine I really respond to. It’s always interesting to me to see the “she’s so boring” or “she didn’t do enough” reactions.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    • I still had questions concerning who to hold culpable for designating this as fantasy b/c it’s mostly the readers that categorize books on goodreads and Amazon, etc. (and fantasy IS the closest fit), BUT that was before the author blew up twitter last night, LOL. Rutkoski definitely considers TWC a fantasy. And I’m sure lots of other people have less strict views of the genre then I do, but I LOVE fantasy, and I love it for both the imaginary worlds AND the magic.

      And yes, I enjoyed Kestrel immensely. I do love my hardcore, sword-wielding heroines, but the clever, deep-thinkers get me too. From the moment of her panic concerning those earrings and whether or not she had falsely accused the vendor, I adored her.

  16. Fantastic review, Jessica! “a cool map does not a fantasy make” – I have to remember that, it was awesome 🙂 I think it made me want to try this book, fantasy or not.

  17. I’m so glad to know now that this isn’t really fantasy because I would be uber disappointed if I read it thinking it was (which I was planning to actually). I do think I’ll still read it, the concept sounds great and I enjoy books of all varieties. I just want to know what I’m getting! Great review as always 🙂

  18. Despite the lack of true fantasy elements, I’m so glad you enjoyed this one Jessica! I agree with you completely on Kestrel, as much as I like a badass fighter of a YA heroine, I so appreciated that Kestrel was something different. And like you said, she played to her strengths. MORE PLEASE!

    • Yes, I don’t think a book needs to fit nicely into a specific genre in order to be enjoyable (I have a sudden image of ripping out the front part of a poetry textbook, LOL). And I do love a variety of different types of heroines. Now all there is left to do is wait for MORE 🙂

  19. I agree with every word. You liked it a bit more than I did but I did feel it was a solid beginning to a series. I just couldn’t get my head out of “this should be fantasy” fast enough to enjoy it more. I think I will like book 2 more but overall the 2nd half of this was really enjoyable.

    • I only decided I liked it as much as I do a few days after the fact, LOL. Initially, I was just mad. And I think I’ll probably like the next book better just b/c I won’t be expecting it to be something it’s not.

  20. Drat.
    I am looking forward to diving into this one but I might be a tad bit pissed with the whole not being that much of a fantasy bit.

    I am a huge fantasy fan so yes… I shall prepare for that blow and try to be more open minded while reading (even if.. it’s going to be hard).

    Great Review, Jessica!! 🙂

  21. I agree with what you said about this book. I also agree about the fantasy part. Although it is hard to label it anything else. I’ve seen others label it as dystopian, but I can’t see it as that either. Your half-fantasy label suits it well. 🙂

    Oh and yea.. that ending! ARGH! LOL

  22. I totally agree with your words about fantasy. I too read YA fantasy the most because like you said 1000 pg books aren’t really easy to deal with. I usually end up loving them but it’s hard to make myself start reading them. Anyhow I’m a bit scared when it comes to this one. I expect too much I think and I need to find a way to lover my expectations. Honestly the lack of magical scares me the most. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Great review, Jessica 🙂

    • If you like historical romance, then you’ll probably like this. That’s essentially what TWC is only it’s an imaginary world instead of England. If you don’t like historical romance . . . then I would be worried too 😉

      Thanks! and I hope you like it as well(if you choose to read it).

  23. Pabkins  

    I completely agree with you! I was like…so where’s the fantasy? The new world setting could have been our history indeed I think she said she was inspired by some part of world history. Anyway, I still liked it despite the fact that it wasn’t really fantasy.

  24. Hmm, you’ve got me curious about the misleading synopsis now. I just bought this one so I’m not thrilled to hear this but hey, if there are some redeeming parts it won’t be a total waste 🙂 I hate when books are marketed as something they are not though. Awesome review 😀

    • Hopefully, you can reconcile yourself to the lack of magic before you actually read it. AND if you like historical romance at all, you’ve got a pretty good chance of liking it 🙂 It is a good story (IMO), it’s just not fantasy.

  25. I try not to always post comments starting out with “Great Review” but in this case I just can’t help it. Great review Jessica! You did a terrific job of balancing out the good and the not so good. I had actually wondered just how much of this book would be considered fantasy. After reading your review I’m no longer wondering.

    • Excellent! I would have enjoyed this book so much more if I had known in advance that it wasn’t fantasy. Now you know, so whatever decision you make, it will be an informed one 🙂

  26. You’ve read my review so you know pretty well what I think about this book! But yes, everyone has been raving about how it was fantasy, and as a fantasy fan, I was expecting a luscious and visually-enticing world, but the setting was pretty vague for me. I don’t think we even find out about the name of the Herrani and Valorian cities, do we? We were only told a bit of the people’s customs but those were more superficial information than anything else. This deterioarated my reading experience a bit 🙁

    Faye @ The Social Potato

    • You know, it’s funny. Every time we talk about this I get angry again, LOL. I’ll cool off and be fine, and then you bring up another really good point—the part of this that IS supposed to be fantasy, isn’t even fleshed out. You’re absolutely right. We know that a mountain range separates Herrani from Valoria and that perpendicular to them both is a frozen wasteland full of natural resources. And that’s it. I think I liked this b/c I’m a sucker for historical romance. And that’s basically what this reads like. I’m sorry you couldn’t even appreciate it on that level 🙁

  27. I’ve been seeing this book a lot lately and was intrigued. You make a good point about it not being fantasy if there’s nothing fantastical about it. It’s funny, but I guess there’s really no genre category for a book that takes place in an alternate world but has no magic in it. I guess half-fantasy will have to do! 🙂

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    • Every time I say “half-fantasy” it reminds me of one of my favorite childhood books, “Half Magic.” Which is actually a very good comparison, LOL. And fortunately, I don’t think a book has to fit perfectly into a genre to be good. I just wanted readers to be prepared 😉

  28. I agree that it didn’t really ‘feel’ fantasy. I guess I would call it ‘light’ fantasy, lol. I didn’t LOVE it, but kind of felt similar to you I guess. I liked it fairly well and the second half (or quarter) was definitely better because I struggled with the pacing in the beginning half. I think you summed things up nicely!

  29. I have to admit that I wrote off this book after one of my friends didn’t like it at all, but your review kind of makes me want to read it.
    I do love fantasy, but as you said, it’s hard to commit to reading considering a number of sequels. I hope it will be a trilogy.
    Great review, Jessica.

  30. I have heard other people complain that while this was a good book it was not the fantasy book it was pushed as. I guess it is just easier to try to sell a book in a genre that is not very popular in YA. This way it gets your book out there in the genre that people think is lacking in YA. I’m sorry this wasn’t really a fantasy book but it does still sound like a good story if you know going in that it isn’t fantasy.

    Thanks for the great review!