Series: The Winner's Trilogy #1
Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on March 4th, 2014
Genres: fantasy, young adult
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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.
Holy crap, you guys. I am seriously kicking myself for not reading this sooner. As with all three-star reviews, I have a LOT of thoughts, so I’m just going to jump into it. There will more than likely be spoilers; be warned.
I did not like this book throughout the majority of my time spent reading it. The Winner’s Curse took entirely too long to get good. Things did not get interesting at all until after page 220. Now, after page 200, shit was seriously awesome, but I just can’t ignore the fact that I had to get through over two hundred pages of boring nothingness. Seriously. All Kestrel does after BUYING A SLAVE (more on that later) is walk through her enormous, empty house and play piano and complain. Now, I would understand this if the time taken up here was spent building tension and connection between Kestrel and Arin, but that’s not how it went. In fact, the romance honestly came out of nowhere. I felt like the author was telling me that these two were in love, but honestly, she never showed it. There were a few friendly moments, but even the characters themselves acknowledged that these moments couldn’t be very genuine given the slave/master dynamic of their relationship. So yeah. Lots and lots of boring exposition and ‘getting to know the characters’ throughout the first two thirds of this novel.
Another huuuuuuge problem I had was with Kestrel. I just could not find her sympathetic at all (until the last third, but more on THAT later.) The first time I tried to read this book was almost a year ago and I stopped VERY early on because how am I supposed to root for a main character that purchased a fucking person. I simply can’t. I juuuuuust cannot. I don’t care about what her society says is right. 1) She’s old enough to know a time before slaves so please; and 2) literally that does not matter she is still a gross, slave-buying person. It would definitely be different if it was just her family that bought and owned slaves but it was HER personally who went to the auction and purchased Arin (and yeah, I know she was baited into it, but there’s literally nothing you could ever do that would make me want to buy a person, so.)
However, outside of being a SLAVE OWNER, Kestrel actually had a lot of characteristics I really, really enjoyed reading. Keeping in mind that none of this really got interesting until the last third, I loved how actually intelligent Kestrel was. There are a lot of so-called genius characters in YA, but this time I think the author hit her mark. Kestrel is an excellent strategist, both militarily and in her every day interactions. We’re told this in the very beginning of the novel, but more importantly, Kestrel is given a chance to prove herself to the reader, and time and time again she succeeds. The only time she is outwitted is by Arin, and in a big way.
I sympathized with Arin the most, obviously. The unspeakable horrors that Kestrel’s people have put his people through… I just can’t even imagine. What I loved the most about him was how proactive he is. Instead of being swept up into revolution accidentally, Arin is one of the key players in the Herrani uprising. His anger was so dark and so palpable. He felt like such a real character when he was confronted with the abuses he had to face so often. However, when he wasn’t being angry and bitter and when he wasn’t planning his uprising, he was soooo stale.
I have issues with people touting this as a romance and I have a BIG issue with the fact that Arin actually fell for Kestrel in this book. I actually really, really enjoyed that he was faking it and going behind her back and using her trust against her. I seriously wish it had stayed that way until the end. Kestrel’s feelings for Arin would have been enough to sustain the darkness of the ending in my opinion. I wish the author had left Arin angry and bitter toward Kestrel (you know, the woman who BOUGHT him.) A romance developing in the second book would have been much better. I think a lot of the reason I didn’t enjoy this as much is because so many people go on about the ship in this and to me it just fell flat. If this was hyped as a really interesting interaction between a slave and his master, as a tightrope friendship Kestrel tried to navigate while being the military strategist that she is – if this had been marketed to me in any way besides as a romance, I might have enjoyed it a bit more.
Now, three stars means it can’t be all bad. And it wasn’t. As I said earlier, the last third of The Winner’s Curse was awesome. The Herrani started their uprising with a BANG and I was so surprised by how dark it got and how quickly. I was equally surprised by the author’s guts and just how “there” she went. A LOT of people died – a lot of people that Kestrel had known her whole life. The Herrani turned all the Valorian wrongdoings on their heads and directed them all at Kestrel. She suffered a lot of indignities at the hands of the Herrani rebels, and this is when I started to actually like her. Kind of. I felt horrible for her the way I felt horrible for the Herrani people.View Spoiler »But then Kestrel started doing Things I Could Not Deal With. And people started making really weird decisions that just didn’t make sense. The ending for instance, really got me angry because the emperor is not a 5 year old kid so his “bargain” was simply ridiculous. He knew the circumstances – he knew the would be draining his resources, his money, and the lives of his men if he kept on with this battle, so he should have been like “Yeah we need to figure something out here.” Instead he made Kestrel agree to marry his kid OR he would destroy the country with war. WHY. WHY WOULD HE DO THAT. It literally makes no sense. He’s not going to bargain with some teenager over the fate of his empire. He’s going to do what’s best for the empire and that’s NOT putting its fate on whether or not someone wants to marry his kid. Instead he should have said “I’ll do this, and in exchange, you’ll do the other thing. You have zero other options, so.” It literally makes me so freaking angry just thinking about it because HONESTLY.
ALSO, I know Kestrel had an endgame that she believed would ultimately save more lives that those lost, but I just cannot deal with her helping the Herrani kill her people. Like. I can’t. « Hide Spoiler
On the other hand, I really loved the rest of the ending. The writing throughout the novel was quite lovely and it was very easily digested. But the end was written almost like a fable or a fairy tale, a story being passed down through generations. It was just beautiful, the way it was written.
I loved that this story, at its heart about war, does not shy away from the ugliness of war and of conquering. History books are written by the victors, after all, and they can leave out any unseemliness they want to. Rutkoski did not pull any punches when showing us the terrible things the Valorian did to the Herrani – and the other way around. I think she covered these angles perfectly, capturing the way a person can break when they have to make decisions that will ultimately hurt people they care for. The only misstep here is Kestrel and Arin’s relationship. There wasn’t enough chemistry for me to really believe that Kestrel would do some of the things she did because of love, and there just simply was not enough exploration of the slave/master dynamic.
Okay, this review has gotten away from me. Bottom line: first two thirds were boring as heck; not enough chemistry and depth between the two main characters; excellent portrayal of the darkness and ugliness of war and its aftermath; really awesome heroine when she’s not buying slaves. The ending was deliciously twisted and I need need need The Winner’s Crime. Confused? Me too.