Author: Marie Rutkoski
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Format Read: Paperback, 368 pages
Expected Publication: 3rd July 2014 by Bloomsbury Childrens (Australian publication)
Synopsis: “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.” (Taken from Goodreads)
The Winner’s Curse was the book I had to read in 2014. Having seen all the wonderful reviews coming out for it from bloggers in the US, I felt really disappointed that the book had not been picked up in Australia yet. But the wonderful Bloomsbury did gain rights, so I was basically over the moon and couldn’t wait to get a copy into my grabby hands.
I am a huge fan of fictional stories based loosely on ancient Roman/Greek history. So when I heard about this book, my ears perked up immediately. I was hooked by its premise, and looking forward to a book that would immerse me in a story of intrigue and disastrous romance. I wanted bloody wars, heartwrenching storylines and a romance I could root for. Unfortunately, The Winner’s Curse was not that amazing book I was hoping to read.
The book follows a girl named Kestrel, who’s the daughter of a great Valorian general, well-known for his part in conquering a city called Herran. Following Herran’s defeat, its citizens were forced into slavery by the Valorians (anyone think of Valyrian?), who were once uncivilised ‘savages’ that the Herrani took pity on and traded with. The book starts off where Kestrel is seen gambling away secretly all night, only to leave once the market starts filling up. She and her friend Jess attempts to go home, and Kestrel leaves the important task of sneaking home – unescorted, which apparently should never happen when you’re a noblewoman – to her friend who leads her straight to a slave pit where a crowd has gathered. They can’t seem to leave because suddenly the area is filled with high society members who’s there to purchase slaves. Kestrel refuses to participate in this horrendous endeavour until the auctioneer spots her and specifically targets her by selling a slave who can sing. Kestrel is hooked from that point as she’s a lover of the musical arts, although it’s frowned upon by her society whom deems music as a slave’s chore. She then throws herself into the auction, and ends up paying an exorbitant amount for the singing slave who refuses to sing.
The first half of the novel follows the developing relationship between Kestrel and her slave Arin, who works as her father’s blacksmith as well as her escort when she’s leaving her estate. At first, the slave refuses to serve her, even going as far as to insult Kestrel when they’re alone. I found it quite unbelievable how Kestrel doesn’t even blink when she’s being insulted by her slave, although she’s grown up having been taught that she’s far superior to them. Also, I find it absolutely ridiculous that Kestrel lets her disobeying slave to wander off without an explanation when he demanded it. The reader is continuously told that Kestrel is smart, logical and very strategic. But that’s one of the major problems of the book – a lot of the action is told and unfortunately, not shown.
Character wise, I really did like Kestrel. I found her personality to be quite strong, despite some of her actions. She’s protective of the ones she loves, especially her best friend Jess who is a juxtaposition to Kestrel, personality wise. Kestrel is also strong-willed, and does not back down even when times get rough. She knows what she wants and knows how she will get there. I really admire people like that. The best thing about Kestrel is her love for music, and her love for the piano. She’s so protective of her gift, she refuses to train to her best abilities for fear of injuring her hands.
Arin, the slave, was also likeable. But frankly, I felt there was a complete change in character from the Arin at the beginning of the book, to the Arin in the second half. The book can be divided into pre-revolution and after. The Arin at the start was an angry and unmovable character, but the Arin after the revolution was a sappy mess. He spent over a day looking for a plant to create an antidote because Kestrel had guilt-tripped him into it. What’s worse is this was occurring while his people were preparing to defend themselves from a second Valorian siege, and they were looking to him to lead them. At that point, I really wanted to smack some sense into him.
So you can probably already tell that I wasn’t exactly invested in the romance right? Honestly, while there was no insta-love, the romance still felt quite forced to me. I enjoyed the two characters together, and how they slowly got to know one another, but their actions still seem stupid to me. After getting to know Arin for a few months (maybe less?), Kestrel puts her own life on the line for him after he was caught stealing a book from Inex’s library. While she hates Inex and discovers that the book had really belonged to Arin prior to the Valorian invasion, I still think basically pronouncing that she will duel Inex to death for it was utter idiocy. Yes, yes, I understand it’s to show how their relationship is changing and Inex’s ultimatium was creepy as all hell, but seriously? She’s been telling us that she’s an awful fighter for the majority of the book, so for a supposed strategist, this is the best situation she can think of to prevent Arin from being whipped for thieving? Kestrel basically puts her whole reputation and life at stake for Arin (yes I know, romantic…) but she continuously makes stupid decisions all throughout the book that contradicts her supposed strategic mind.
But in saying that, Kestrel does come up with some pretty sneaky plans. She survives her duel with Inex through trickery, and manages to manipulate the emperor into following her plan for the Herrani people. Arin also comes up with some pretty cool strategies for the war as well. But with all this strategising, what was lacking became the action. The action was what I was looking forward to most, and was thoroughly disappointed when most of the war was one big “they did this and then that happened”. In retrospect, most of the book fell short of showing the reader what happened, but rather just telling what happened. I didn’t mind all that much because the writing was really good, and stuck to the time period it was based on. What Rutkoski did best was definitely the beautiful writing, I enjoyed that quite a lot, especially the exchanges between the characters. Unfortunately, the writing could not save those last few pages where the long-awaited war was basically told to have happened through Arin’s perspective. I understand my expectations of a bloody war would never have appeared in the pages of a YA novel, so that’s not what disappointed me. The biggest disappointment was that nothing really happened, we were just told it did.
Overall, I did enjoy the book. It was different to the siege of paranormal and dystopian genres filling up the YA shelves, which is quite refreshing. I enjoyed the two main characters, and I liked them together. Do I ship them completely and with all my heart? No, probably not, but that ending is intriguing enough for me to pick up the next book in the series. It feels like it’s setting the story for a love-triangle – but dare I say it, I think I’m actually looking forward to it. The action was definitely subpar, so some court intrigue will definitely spice up this story!
Thank you to Bloomsbury Australia for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.