Review: The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Release date: March 4th, 2014
Publisher: Farrar Strauss Giroux (Macmillan)
Series: #1 in The Winner's Trilogy
Source: Early unbound manuscript
Length: 355 pages
Rating: Everything could not be more perfect... except for that one thing. (And it is most definitely NOT the cover)
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.
This is going to be a tough one for me to review. The good news is, this is a fantastic book. The worldbuilding, prose, characters, concepts, and themes are all stupendous. I read this novel in one sitting. I burned the midnight oil. I burned the two am oil. I ran out of oil.
|Just kidding. There's no such thing as an awesome math lecture.|
I gasped in all the right places, and my god if that ending wasn't genius. So why is this a difficult review for me to write? Because every other review I've read for this book spends paragraphs gushing about the one element that didn't blow me away: the romance. Which is, if you've ever read any of my other reviews, my most favoritest part of any book.
We'll start with the good, of which there is lots. I'm not sure if Rutkoski was directly influenced by the Roman Empire, but the culture of Valoria feels very Romanesque. It is a dominant, austere, logical country with a vast military that swallows up other cultures and countries around it, steals their land and their resources, and turns their people into slaves. Such is the fate for the Herrani, who find themselves conquered and enslaved and are not too thrilled about it. Rutkoski creates such a deep and fascinating political landscape for her story. I could see the marketplaces and the people. I could feel the tension between them. I understood what being a Valorian meant and what growing up in that culture would be like. Rutkoski is a master at giving you a sense of place without info dumping in the slightest.
Kestrel, our main main character, is the wealthy daughter of a Valorian general. She is brilliant, strategic, and smart. She's also and secretly kind, which is shown in the opening scene when she buys a handsome Herrani slave to save him from a worse fate (it doesn't sound like a nice thing, but it is). Of course, that slave is our other main character, Arin, and he has secrets of his own--namely that he is not the uneducated, passive laborer he claims to be.
Kestrel is my girl. She could out-logic and outmaneuver the best of men, and she does it over and over again in The Winner's Curse. In fact, one of the main themes of the novel is the concept of the pyrrhic victory, that by winning, you really lose. Every victory in TWC is somewhat of an empty victory. People gain what they wanted at great cost, and it's totally tragic and beautiful. Arin is fiery and full of revenge and passion, and while I didn't connect to him quite as much as I did Kestrel, the way Rutkoski slowly reveals his secrets and softens his personality was masterfully done.
"But Gillian!" you're probably thinking. "This sounds like a rave! What's the issue?" Well, my issue is both a minor and a major one. The good news is, I've only found one other blogger who had the same issue as I did, which means, statistically, you probably won't share my feelings. The bad news is, the weakness of this one element weakened my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, because it hit me right where my readerly heart lives: the feels. The romance.
I'm sorry, Thor. I'm so sorry. I'll tell you. It has all the bones of a Gillian romance. Arin and Kestrels are enemies. She is a Valorian, one of the conquerors. He is Herrani, one of the conquered. She is a wealthy mistress, and he is her slave. They are both full of strategy and brilliance, and they like nothing better than to spar with their minds and their words.
And yet there was a step missing. That's all it was to me: bones. They went from mutual loathing to grudging respecty friendship-ish stuff and then BAM! They're making out in carriages. I felt like I missed a step. I needed a scene or four where I started to understand where love was coming from. Because of my lack of investment in the starcrossed romance, which is really where the bulk of the emotion lies in The Winner's Curse, I never got the soul-crushing feels I wanted.
I did not swoon, but I wanted so, so, SO BADLY to swoon. Like, I want to go back in time and pretend I swoon, because why didn't I swoon?! Is my swoonability broken? Have I lost my swoon? WHO BROKE MY SWOON?
Anyway, once the couple declares their coupley feelings for each other, the plot of the book becomes awesome. Seriously, I love every single choice Rutkoski made (besides the romance). She is cruel and tricksy and devious and really, REALLY drives home the concept of the winner's curse for both Arin and Kestrel.
As much as I adore and prefer my novels to have some kind of magic in them, it was also refreshing to read a fantasy novel entirely dependent on the actions and decisions of humans. Tables are flipped, rebellions are started, deals are made, and I cannot wait to see what happens in the next book. Hopefully, I'll be shipping it a bit more by then.