The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski (The Winners #1)
Published Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2014
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
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.
I picked up this book because it reminded me a little bit of Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, which is one of my favorite trilogies. It’s packed with a historical fantasy concept that I really love reading. But that’s not exactly what this book was.
The Winner’s Curse is kind of like a fantasy romance. The main plot of this book is the ‘star crossed lovers’ idea between a general’s daughter and a slave. Therefore, the plot rested upon the romance. But I never really liked the romance until the last twenty or so pages of the book. Up until then, I just wasn’t feeling anything between the two characters. They set up a bit of a love triangle and I really wanted Kestrel to be with the other guy, who she had so much history with and he was so sweet! Arin failed for me as a love interest and Kestrel’s love for him just seemed so sudden for me to really understand. After she buys him as a slave, she feels a bit of buyer’s remorse from the purchase (known in the book as the winner’s curse, thus the title). But so soon after she is already thinking about him in a loving way without spending much time as him.
The book started with a very interesting depiction of slavery in this fantasy world. However, Arin ruined this plot for me. Kestrel lets him go so freely and it broke the slave/owner relationship. Kestrel would let Arin go into the city alone, just assuming he was meeting a ‘lover,’ when he was instead planning a rebellion from inside the castle. She trusted him way too much, often sharing government or war secrets and then letting him run around. Arin seemed to control Kestrel’s actions much too often. Kestrel doesn’t do anything about it either, even when they are in public. There is one scene when Arin insults one of Kestrel’s friends, Jess, and Kestrel doesn’t do anything about it, even for the sake of showing some type of slave/owner relationship in public.
The fantasy in this world is very small. It reminds me more of a redo of a historical fiction because there is nothing fantastical about the world. It reminded me so much of the Roman empire – from the constant conquering of tribes around the pennisula, the enslaving of the native people, the self governing of the tribes, and the way everything about the government was set up. I mostly pictured the structure of the Roman empire with the fashion of the English empire. Even the downfall of this empire is the very thing that made the Romans collapse.
The plot was intriguing. The native Hermani people, who have been enslaved, are rebelling against the people that conquered them. This takes place around halfway through the book giving it plenty of time to unfold before reaching the ending. I really liked how the book was set up to give us a more extended look at what developed after the rebellion. The ending of the book was very interesting and took a very different direction than I thought, which makes me interested in the second book to be released next year. All of the rebellion scenes were very interesting and wish more of the plot came from this part of the story.
Overall, this book was okay. The romance failed for me, although that was the main concept of the book. The fantasy aspects, while well developed, could have been stronger, as well as the depiction of slavery in this world. However, the rebellion plot saved this book for me.