Book Review: The Winner’s Curse

Posted December 12, 2014 by Lyn Kaye in book review, Lyn / 3 Comments

Book Review: The Winner’s CurseThe Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner's Trilogy #1
Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on March 4th, 2014
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Pages: 355
Format: Hardcover
Source: Won
Buy on Amazon

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.

Love it, like it or loathe it, no matter where you stand on The Winner’s Curse, there is no denying that this book was a hotly debated and muchly sought release for 2014. With a title promising something along the lines of bittersweet, and a cover that caught the attention, adoration and some flack, Rutkoski’s novel could not be ignored for YA lovers this year.

I won this copy from Christina’s comment giveaway. When she offered a title released in the month I won, I KNEW that I was going to snag this book. The debates and curious comments regarding the premise and some of the morality of the novel hooked me and stroked my curiosity.

Yes, The Winner’s Curse did have some uncomfortable subject topics, but Rutkoski took some common YA tropes and made them actually work to the advantage of the story.




Characters Have All The Fun – You have your beautiful male stranger and the oppressed celebrity daughter, the offspring of a famous war general. Don’t just dismiss the book yet. The characters had some wonderful merits and really shined.  I thought Kestrel was wonderfully written with some well-rounded traits and struggles. She isn’t the superwoman girl that can do it all. She can’t live up to expected potential. Does that make her feel horrible? Yes, it does. Does it make her fall into a self-loathing pit of hatred? No, it doesn’t. She feels slightly frazzled by idea that she isn’t a Warrior Heroine that her status seemed for her to become. Instead, she uses wit and her mind where strength and blood lust are expected. She isn’t sorry for what she is, she is sorry that people expect too much from her.

Arin’s characterization was a little more difficult to pinpoint. He seemed such a mystery at times, and I was very uncertain about his general direction. For the entire book, he is very shrouded in an identity crisis, which isn’t difficult to accept, since he was ripped away from his previous life through violence and forced into slavery. Stepping back and thinking over his character, it seems that the confusion and threadbare voice was due to PTSD. When we were able to see parts of himself shine through, it was like greeting the sun that hid behind the clouds for too long. I enjoyed the small glimpses that were caught during the story line.

Background character-wise, I really ended up enjoying some of the secondary characters.  Jess’s simple wit and slightly flighty disposition worked well to contrast Kestrel and set the bar for what was expected of her as a lady of society. Jess’s brother, a potential love interest, wasn’t lessened by his battle for her heart. He was a bit flat at times, but we see enough to understand Kestrel’s frustration at her lack of affection for the safer, obligatory choice.


Cultural Sensitivity – Without sugar coating it, yes, this book has the theme of slavery from the results of a hostile takeover by one culture of another culture.  The subject isn’t pretty at all.  One thing that bothered me is that we never see the true depths of the slavery. Yes, the target demographic doesn’t care to read about the horrors of forcing an entire population into servitude as a spoil of war, but pushing the envelope and making a case of the morality of such a practice should come up as a stronger theme. Bad things do happen to slaves, and we do see oppression and humiliation of an entire race, such as selling and buying people, corporal punishment and pressure to become a partner. However, I do feel that the entire subject was “fluffyfied” to become more palatable for a larger audience.

Chains of love – the romance. The hotbed of the book. There is a firestorm surrounding the romance of two characters, one purchased as a slave, and the other is the buyer. In the novel, this adds to the tension, but in real life, this could easily fall in the category of Stockholm syndrome. The book is fantasy, and the female never uses her position to gain the favor of the male slave. It seems that many others in the society seem to use this practice and do take slaves are lovers.  The main two characters’ relationship didn’t bother me. The passage that others used slaves in such a way made me queasy. So for that topic, there is my honest opinion.

Heat wave – It was no surprise for the main pairing in the novel – you can pick it up just in the description of the book. Did it work? Oh, hell yes! Rutkoski can write, and her chemistry was so point on. The braiding scene is still dancing in my head. WOW. The passion of the two heavy contenders was strained, and very appealing.

Internally Screaming – Bigger than the romance or the chafing subject of human slavery, the heavy, hard decisions faced by the characters compelled me to keep turning the pages.  I pointed out that the tough topics of the book seemed softer and watered down for mass appeal, but the decisions in front of Kestrel did not suffer from such a fate. Kestrel had to place a lot on the line for honor and honestly, and the bravery she took up to protect the precious things in her life caught me by surprise. Rutkoski’s world did have a good share of fancy settings, such as chaste rides for interested couples and court life and gilded living for the high society. However, the book treats genders with more equality than I have seen from other stories. Women can be challenged to duels and be expected to fight them. Both genders enlist in the army. I found the entire gender equation actually very satisfying! Men still held power and high offices in the book, but opening events and occupations to both genders seemed so refreshing.

Returning back to Kestrel’s dilemmas, I enjoyed how she used her intelligence as a true weapon, thinking things through, and refusing to back down from a challenge because it conflicted with other such issues as her emotions and obligations.  One of the reasons that the romance didn’t turn me off was because I could see how attraction can set people on equal ground. Kestrel could have taken

the easy way out of certain situations, but she chose to do what she felt was right, even though her own small society surrounding her seemed to believe something different.

She-BANG – THAT ENDING. Whoa. As of now, I do have the sequel in ARC form, and I can say that I am ready to rip through that ASAP. The ending was a heated, clever, and completely shocking. It also made for a good plot device if the series never continued (thankfully, it does!). I like an ending that you can accept as a cliffhanger or a clean conclusion.


Just awesome. Just plain awesome. If you haven’t read it yet, seriously go and do it. Awesome characters, awesome culture, awesome debates on morality. Just a well-rounded, wonderful novel!


3 responses to “Book Review: The Winner’s Curse

  1. At first I couldn’t figure out what would be controversial about this one based on my memory from it but I can definitely see the elements of the slavery and romance that would frustrate some people. I guess I kind of expect YA to not delve into too dark of subject matter and am surprised when it does, so I found the mention of darker elements of slavery a reasonable approach *shrugs*. I feel kind of bad because I get frustrated with Stockholm syndrome romances when the woman is the captive, but I guess I ended up agreeing with you that there was enough tension and overcoming the situation that I believed it. Plus Kestrel was never cruel and probably saved him from a much worse fate, so it feels different than other romances that have annoyed me >.> but I could just be justifying my opinion in my head 😉
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