Title: The Winner’s Curse (2014)
Series: The Winner’s Trilogy – Book 1
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Genre: Young Adult, Historical
Extent: 355 pages
Release Date: March 4, 2014
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.
The first time I saw The Winner’s Curse, I thought it was something akin to Kiera Cass’s The Selection, which I DNF-ed pretty much instantly. The cover, after all, is similar: there’s a girl in an extravagant ball gown, and her expression is not a happy one. Well… let me just say that the two are very, very different, and I regret not reading this book sooner.
The Winner’s Curse is shelved as fantasy, but the story actually involves zero magic. Instead, it’s a tamer version of Kiersten White’s And I Darken — more historical, more political, and with more warfare. The story revolves around Kestrel, the Valorian daughter of General Trajan, and Arin, the Herrani slave she ‘accidentally’ bought at a slave auction. The two slowly got to know one another and from there on, trouble ensued.
“The Winner’s Curse is when you come out on top of the bid, but only by paying a steep price.”
Rutkoski’s world-building is solid, and the book was particularly interesting when tensions between the two races — the Valorian and the Herrani — were in the spotlight. Originally the ‘savages’, the Valorians are now rulers the land the Herrani used to own. Most Valorians hate the Herrani or at the very least look down on them. Naturally, these lead to some very interesting themes to be explored: slavery, racism, colonialism.
I particularly enjoyed the little finishing touches that Rutkoski added to her setting. The Valorian, for example, burn their dead and sing when they win battles, whereas the Herrani burn their dead and cheer when they win. These cultural or religious details were not shoved in our faces, but rather naturally slipped into the dialogue or the narrative — the mark of a great writer, to be sure. Here’s another example:
If the Herrani hadn’t prized music so highly before the war, that, too, might have changed things. But in the eyes of Valorian society, music was a pleasure to be taken, not made, and it didn’t occur to many that the making and the taking could be the same.
When it comes to the characters, I really liked Kestrel. I liked that she was intelligent and cunning, and that she relied more on her brain than her brawns. I loved how Rutkoski emphasised her strengths but didn’t dismiss her flaws. While I didn’t connect with Kestrel from page one, I appreciated what she stood for and that she held strong to her principles even when her friends questioned her on it. I enjoyed how she related to her father, General Trajan, and how complex their relationship was.
Arin, unfortunately, I was a bit more divided with. He was abrasive, rude, and honestly very reckless — I found him uninteresting and not unlike the dark, broody heroes we so often see in YA fiction. Perhaps this too was why I felt like his relationship with Kestrel turned romantic too suddenly: I wasn’t in love with him when she already was. The element of forbidden romance is strong with these two, but their falling for each other felt too soon, too fast, too easy for me.
“A kestrel is a hunting hawk.”
“Yes. The perfect name for a warrior girl.”
“Well.” His smile was slight, but it was there. “I suppose neither of us is the person we were believed we would become.”
The Winner’s Curse is best when it is dealing with political, societal and warfare issues, which Rutkoski weaved into the story without making it forced or unnatural. The romance did take centre stage more than I would’ve liked, but overall I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it.
PS: I’m honestly really confused as to what to shelve this book as. Fantasy is anything with magic, and this one doesn’t have it, so that’s out. Maybe historical? It’s an imagined historical setting — does that count? God knows, I’ll just go with that for now. 😂