The Winner's Curse
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Number of Pages: 355
Release Date: March 4, 2014
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.
The hardest reviews for me to write are always for the over-hyped books. Everybody I know has been clamoring for this one--that cover!--and the raves are already pouring in. Man, this sounds negative. It's not. I actually enjoyed this one quite a bit. I was just so nervous to start it because I'm often the black sheep when it comes to beloved books, but I was easily drawn into this story and read most of it in an afternoon which is rare for me. So while I'm not going to be the dissenting voice this time (yay), I didn't LOVE this book like I know most of my other friends have so far. Don't get me wrong, it is well written and I absolutely enjoyed it, but I'm being a scrooge when it comes it to series, and this definitely reads like the first book in a series.
The Winner's Curse follows a young girl named Kestrel. Kestrel is an aristocrat, the general's daughter, and a Valorian. Kestrel is at the point in her life where all Valorians must make a decision: She must either get married or join the military. Her father is hoping that she will chose a place by his side and join the military ranks, for while she isn't the best fighter, she has the perfect mind for military strategy. Kestrel, for her part, doesn't really want to choose either. She knows she doesn't want to join the military, despite her father's wishes, but she also isn't in love with any of the boys with whom she might marry. Her whole life changes when, on a whim, she purchases a defiant Herrani slave named Arin.
Over a decade ago, the Valorians conquered the Herrani land. Those families that were deemed worthy got the wealthy homes in the village, including Kestrel's family, and the Herrani who survived the invasion now live as slaves. Arin has gotten by working for a blacksmith and is waiting for the day in which the Herrani can make a move to get their beloved village back.
There were several things that I really enjoyed about this story. The first are the characters, themselves. I loved Kestrel. I loved how intelligent she was and the fact that she could easily climb the ranks of the military should she choose. Even though music is considered beneath the Valorian, she has a strong attachment to her mother's piano and plays whenever possible. I loved the strong friendship between her and Jess, as well as with Jess's brother, Ronan. I also really liked Arin. I was dismayed by some of his actions, but I understood his motivation. I cannot even imagine having to go from a member of society into slavery--especially to the very people who took everything away.
The biggest baddie--who I won't spoil here--was sufficiently hate-worthy. I seriously wanted to dive into the book and take this person out myself. Grrr.
I thought the world building was strong. I was expecting for this to be more, I don't know, fantasy-based or "other-worldly" in some way, but the world read more like historical fiction. There aren't any fantasy or magical elements which I appreciated. The Valorian's authority is wide-spread with many villages falling to them. The emperor who controls it all is said to be a two day trip away by ship which leaves control of the city to Kestrel's father. I found the military aspect pretty fascinating and intriguing, and found myself rooting for both sides.
The relationship between Kestrel and Arin (you know it happens) was well-written and slow burning. There's attraction, but there is no instalove here. The two develop a shaky friendship first and both struggle with their feelings. Kestrel knows that she would never be able to chose a Herrani slave as her mate, and Arin cannot forget what has been done to him and his people.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Winner's Curse. The history/military aspects are well-written and interesting, the secondary characters are fleshed out, and our two main characters are lovely. The novel definitely reads like the first book in a series, though, which would be my only real complaint. The novel doesn't end on a cliff-hanger, per se, but it's pretty close. I definitely wish I would have waited to start this series until all the books were out. Just saying. BUT I do think most people will be drawn into this story completely and can easily recommend it. It's pretty flawless.
*I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange of an honest review.*