Author: Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner's Trilogy #1
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Date: July 2014
Source: Review copy from publisher
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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.
After reading The Winner’s Curse, I was in a haze for days—a little daydream bubble that couldn’t be popped because this beautiful book was such a delight to read. I wanted to lock myself in a room with a cosy blanket and a cup of tea and savour it again and again.
Make no mistake, if you’re looking for a high-action fantasy read, this isn’t the book for you. In a world where the Valorian race conquers and enslaves the Herrani, most of the story is gradual strategic manipulation and spans themes of slavery, politics, and rebellion. It makes you question whose side you’re on, page by page. It is a beautifully deliberate and concisely written book. Best of all, there is a wonderful slow-burning relationship that I adored.
Kestrel, the Valori General’s daughter is strategically minded and constantly fighting off pressure from her strict but loving father to choose whether to join the military or get married (her preference is neither). She’s aware of her privilege, but never takes it for granted. She’s strong, compassionate and cautious, with a deep sense of loyalty to her friends and family. When she buys Arin, a quiet and strong Herrani slave with unrevealed motives from an auction, she suffers the titular ‘winner’s curse’, and inadvertently sets off a chain of events that reverberates throughout the book.
Their relationship was crafted masterfully. As the story moved mainly through the characters’ thoughts and emotions, each interaction between Kestrel and Arin was beautiful in its restraint—the callous words, the reluctant companionship, the sacrifice, the tables turning—it’s as lovely as the music which is their shared interest. I respected that even after they realized their feelings, they still acted for the good of their cause and country. You never quite knew where they stood with each other. Kestrel and Arin’s character arcs moved in opposite parallels and the symmetry it provided was superb.
There were also moments of tense, exciting brilliance and a great cast of well-developed supporting characters. I was very fond of how they portrayed Kestrel’s tender relationship with her father and also her affection for friends Jess and Ronan. I was kept on knife-edge during the public duel between Kestrel and the overconfident noble and sustained a feeling of nervous dread when Cheat came into Kestrel’s home. I also enjoyed the military tactics in the book, especially when Arin finally took charge at the pass. In fact, the last third of the book was filled lots of unpredictable action and excitement.
If you enjoyed These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meaghan Spooner and The Falconer by Elizabeth May then this one is for you. I can’t rave about The Winner’s Curse enough, especially when that ending perfectly set up the rest of the series. I think it will be worth the wait.