Book Review: The Winner’s Curse – Marie Rutkoski

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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
Rating: ★★★★☆

Goodreads Description

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.

Review

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. 😂

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46 thoughts on “Book Review: The Winner’s Curse – Marie Rutkoski

  1. Oh! Such an awesome review. I too felt like I wouldn’t like this book based on the cover. But I’ve read many raving reviews so I went out and bought a copy. I know I will get to it eventually, but maybe sooner with because of your review! 😀

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  2. The first time I read this book, I didn’t really get the hype, but I did a re-read this year and loved it so much. Kestrel is definitely my favorite part of this series because she’s not the physically strong heroine. I love that she’s intelligent and cunning! I can understand where you’re coming from when it comes to Arin. Hopefully, you’ll grow to like him better in the next two books!
    Lovely review! 🙂

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    • Kestrel is my favourite part too! I thought she was really, really smart – even when she was overtaken by love she was still thinking about how to best get them out of a bad situation, haha. I like that she wasn’t just recklessly throwing her life on the line but instead is playing it in a way she knows she has a chance to win. 😛

      Thanks, Nick! I’m glad your reread made you appreciate the book more. ❤

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  3. I’m so glad you liked this book! I really enjoyed the political aspects of it too, I thought they were really well done. I was so-so on the romance in the first book, but for me it got better as the series went on and both Kestrel and Arin developed a little more.

    Great review! 🙂

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    • Yeah, the politics were definitely the highlight! It’s obvious that Rutkoski did a lot of research. I’m glad to hear that the romance got better for you – I’ve actually finished the series (just haven’t written all the reviews) and unfortunately for me it still ended up an OK romance, haha. I still love Kestrel, though. ❤

      Thank you!

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  4. Great review Reg! It’s great to see you loved this book, The Winner’s Trilogy is one of my all-time favourites so I’m looking forwards to seeing the rest of your reviews for this series.
    I agree with you about the similarities between this book and And I Darken. In a way Kestrel reminds me a little of both Lada and Radu; she’s smart enough to understand people’s desires and twist them to her means but also brutal in her own way when it comes to those she cares about.
    I loved the world-building in this story as well, it was so well done and it made the series really stand out for me. Honestly I think this trilogy gets better and better with each book so hopefully you’ll enjoy the second book even more! 😀

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    • Thanks, Beth! It definitely surprised me with its depth – I had originally dismissed it as vapid based on the cover, haha.

      And yes, Kestrel is SO smart. She’s definitely my favourite character here because even when she’s in love, she’s still using her brain to plot out the best way forward for all of them. It’s a sign of someone who’s responsible and careful, not reckless the way I think Arin is. 😛

      I’ve actually finished the whole series – just slow at writing/publishing my reviews, as usual. For me the series stayed generally consistent. It didn’t get MUCH better but it didn’t get worse either, and I think that’s pretty good. 😀

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      • Yeah after you picked it up in your review I did notice the similarities between this cover and that for The Selection, but this was a book I picked up from a recommendation rather than a cover buy so it didn’t really put me off.
        Exactly, I loved that about her character, even with everything going on between her and Arin she still keeps her head and doesn’t do anything stupid or reckless! The same definitely applies in the second books as well! 🙂
        Ohh, in that case I’m looking forwards to your reviews for the second and third book, I’m definitely glad you enjoyed this series! 🙂

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  5. I keep saying I’m going to read this series and I will when I actually have the time to spare haha. I am so glad you enjoyed the book and I love the fact that the political and social maneuvering is strong in this book. Usually with a not-so fantasy fantasy I find that one the romance starts all talk about politics and the cultural distinctions get tossed into the background. My excitement for this series has not wavered and I am praying I get the chance to pick up the books sooner rather than later. 😀

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    • Haha, that’s what I’ve been saying about SO MANY BOOKS. I dunno, life just gets in the way, I guess.

      I did think that the romance was a bit too much for me to absolutely fall in love with the book, but the politics/cultural stuff are still pretty strong, so overall it was a great reading experience. I hope you pick it up soon – can’t wait to see what you think. ❤

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  6. I thought this book overall was really good, but not my favorite necessarily but The Winner’s Crime was AMAZING! Leaps and bounds better! I’m glad you enjoyed this one. Marie’s writing is easy and fantastic! It reminded me a bit of Sarah J. Maas’ writing style.

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    • Oh, I agree so much with the writing! I don’t generally like SJM’s books, but I can kind of see where you’re coming from. 😛

      Did you like The Winner’s Crime best? I’ve finished the series and I’d say that the trilogy remains consistently good for me. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t LOVE it (mostly because of Arin, I think). D:

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