Review of “The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The premise of this new series isn’t terribly ground-breaking, but nevertheless it has some very winning qualities.

Seventeen-year-old Kestrel is the daughter of single parent General Trajan, the highest ranking general of the Valorian Empire, which now rules over the lands taken ten years ago from the Herrani. The Herrani serve as “slaves” to the Valorians, but the slavery is depicted as more of indentured servitude. Kestrel has been brought up with the help of a Herrani woman, and so is more compassionate than other Valorians towards Herranis, and more conflicted about the whole slavery system. Nevertheless, she doesn’t question it too much; it is the world into which she has been born.

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Mentored by her father, Kestrel has a great mind for strategy, whether in games of cards or games of war, but is resisting her father’s efforts to enlist in the military. (Her choices, like those of all Valorians whether male or female, are the military or marriage, the latter option becoming mandatory by age twenty for anyone not a soldier.) Kestrel is not interested in either.

As the story begins, Kestrel and her BFF Jess are at the outdoor market, and end up at a slave auction. For reasons she can’t articulate even to herself, Kestrel is drawn to the rebellious and handsome boy of 19 promoted by the auctioneer as a blacksmith and singer. Kestrel’s father needs a good smith, and Kestrel loves music, so she impulsively bids on the boy, whose name is Arin, and brings him back to her estate.

Thereafter, two very significant things happen to change Kestrel’s life: first Arin is not who he seems to be, and second, Kestrel and Arin fall in love. The complications are enormous, and the resolution possibly tragic.

Discussion: The two main characters are extremely appealing. Both are victims of a past they didn’t choose, and both must come to grips with the moral implications of that past. The feelings that grow between them are complex and seem realistic.

The prose is well-done, and sometimes more than that. (I am not providing examples because they all happen to be spoilery, but the author occasionally waxes quite poetic in her descriptions.)

Although weightier topics like the fluidity of definitions of freedom and justice depending on who are society’s victors are not treated with the gravitas they might merit in more realistic fiction, neither are they ignored. 

Evaluation: I really liked this first book of a new trilogy, in spite of some weak world-building (which I actually don’t mind since it makes the plot easier to follow). The writing is quite good and the two main characters are great. As for the ending, well, it’s not exactly a cliffhanger, but it would be better to have the next book at hand to proceed with the story. So far, I can definitely recommend it.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014

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4 Responses to Review of “The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

  1. Rachel says:

    So many good trilogies out there – I can’t keep up! I’m just now reading Insurgent – that’s how far I am on YA dystopian books.

  2. I struggled with this one. I am glad to see you enjoyed it 😉

  3. sandynawrot says:

    Not sure this is totally my thing, but this is a pretty good rating for you, so I’ll probably watch how it develops. Maybe I’ll pick it up after more books are published!

  4. I’ll be interested to see how the author deals with her themes of freedom and politicking and that stuff, as the later books come out. I agree that there were some very interesting themes here that didn’t necessarily get their full due.

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