Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski

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.

The ship.

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.


  1. THIS OH MY GOD THIS. Seriously. I had the exact same feels. I loved everything but I did NOT swoon for the romance. I liked them over time, but ABSOLUTELY did they skip some steps. So you're not alone in wondering what went wrong and why everyone else seems to rave about this couple. *sigh* *hugs*

  2. I'm reading this one right now and am about 70-ish pages from the end(so they've all ready started making out in carriages) and I don't feel the romance either. I'm not ANTI the romance, it's fine, it's there, but I'm not swooning or really digging it either. I'm really liking the rest of it so far(and I mean, 70 pages from the end, so I know the big stuff is probably coming), but at this point I could take or leave the romance.

  3. I'm bummed you didn't feel the slow burn! I think their relationship was founded on mutual respect and mystery, which was not quite the typical swoon fare. And while I'm remembering the late night Bite & Sting matches and the braiding of her hair and what not, I agree that Marie definitely could have amped it up just a titch with the swoon.

    What made the least sense to me was how Arin was super duper into Kestrel and didn't want her away from his home and what not. I was like......he's THAT SERIOUS? Anyway, the rest of the story definitely worked for me and I felt the ship at the end so I'm ready for the next book like whoa.

  4. So, I actually agree with you about the romance! I didn't really feel the swoons for Arin and Kestrel, even though I really wanted to. There were some moments where I feel like I should have felt it -- but it just never happened. I think, in part, it has something to do with the fact that I couldn't really connect with either of them very well.

    Otherwise, I think that THE WINNER'S CURSE has the potential to become even better as the series continues. The concept is pretty smart, and the story is very engaging! I enjoyed seeing how everything was going to fall into place (or fall apart), and I'm curious how Marie will continue.

  5. I always love it when a review points out something other than what everyone else is saying. And now you've got me thinking: were all the steps there for me? In any case, it seems like this couple will have plenty of time to work out their feelings for each other.
    Jen @ YA Romantics

  6. I get it. That happens way too often to me- the romance doesn't click. It always hurts my emotional attachment to a story. I really do hope however that I'm in the majority and adore this one because The Winner's Curse seems like a phenomenal read and it's probably one of my most wanted books.

    -P.E. @ The Sirenic Codex

  7. THIS NOVEL SOUNDS SO AWESOME. And even though the romance is a bit iffy, I know that I'm going to love it from your review! I can't wait to read it!

  8. I need this book right now. My hands feel empty, even though I could fill them with so many books. It's seems kind of weird that the romance did what it did and I'm hoping that I like it more than you did, cause who doesn't want a good romance? On the other hand I know what you need about needing that middle step. Guess I'll just have to wait and see.

  9. I just started reading The Winner's Curse! So far I love it, and based on almost every other review out there, I probably will when I'm done. I'm glad to hear your thoughts on the romance, because based on how you've described it, that's something I'm picky about in most books. Wonderful, honest review!

  10. I hear ya Gillian! You make a good point about the fast transition to kisses and the lack of swoons. I definitely was expecting all the feels and then didn't get them, knocking down my rating of the book. That ending though! People told me that this wasn't a romance heavy book, and I guess I feel like it was actually since that is the main plot line (or the main plot line wouldn't have been possible without the romance I guess?), but the ending was unexpected in the best way.

  11. I agree with your review almost completely! I, too, did not swoon at the romance, but here is where I disagree; I really don't think swooning was the point of their relationship. I loved their relationship because it was based entirely on their respect and esteem for each other, not on their ability to make out hotly. I felt like the steps in between friendship and carriage-kissing was there, it was just subtle, which I enjoyed (maybe it's just me). While I missed the swoon, I did feel their emotions towards each other, and it made up for the swoon - or lack thereof - for me. I feel like if there had been swoonage, it might have detracted from the slow-burn and respect part of their relationship.
    That said, I do hope for swoonage in future books, and I quite enjoyed your review!

    1. I think you misunderstand what I meant by "swoon", though I agree with you. What you say you got from the romance is what I MEAN by "swoon". When I say swoon, i don't mean just sexy times and make out--I mean investing in them as a couple. Yes, I saw them gain respect and esteem from that, and that's the basis of swoonage for me, but I didn't see LOVE, which is what MAKES me swoon. Swooning = shipping, not out and out fanning myself over steamy scenes.

      What I'm trying to say, basically, is that to me, you DID swoon--but I did not. I wanted to, though, and I almost was with you on the couple. I just didn't feel the chemistry, really.

  12. I absolutely adored this book!! I didn't have issues with the romance, but it might be cause the romance was so unusual! There was some beginnings and then some plot twists and everything gone wrong and right!!

    And the world building... HOLY WORLD BUILDING!!


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