The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner’s Curse, #1
Published: 2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Arin wondered if she would lift her eyes, but wasn’t worried he would be seen in the garden’s shadows.He knew the law of such things: people in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark.
If by some chance you didn’t already know this, The Winner’s Curse is kind of a big deal. The amount of pre- and post-publication marketing that has gone into this book has been a bit insane, to be honest. But it seems to have worked for a large percentage of the book’s readers, with negative opinions few and far between. As for me? I liked it, but unfortunately I didn’t love it.
Kestrel’s two greatest skills are a mind greatly honed for strategizing and hands that play the piano beautifully. One skill is considered a major asset by her father and her the people of culture, known as the Valorians. Another is seen as a frivolity and a bit too much of a reminder of the culture that the Valorians defeated and enslaved a decade ago, known as the Herrani. As the daughter of the great Valorian general, however, Kestrel can do pretty much what she wants - until she comes of age, at least. Then she must make the choice of either joining the military or marrying.
Although she has known those two options are what her future holds, Kestrel has not really allowed them to bother her thus far, enjoying her current position that allows her to have the best of both worlds. But one day at the market, Kestrel watches an auction for Herrani slaves and finds herself bidding for one teenaged Herrani boy, marketed as both a skilled smith and a skilled singer. Kestrel is drawn to Arin, her new slave, and being with him helps her see their world in a new way. Unfortunately for her, however, Arin is more than he seems and has ulterior motives for becoming her slave.
The Winner’s Curse is a bit ambitious in its aims. It deals with issues of slavery, gender roles, revolution, political intrigue, forbidden love, and much, much more. These are all themes that I love to read about, especially in my high fantasies. I could not help but note, however, that some are addressed much more successfully than others.
Perhaps the largest conflict within the pages of this story is the one defining the morality of the Valorian lords and the Herrani captives. And this, I think, is rather well done. Rutkoski traverses a number of fine lines in her depictions of the oppressed Herrani, the overconfident Valorians, and the secret rebellion that is brewing. And yet at no point is one side clearly the villain. According to the Herrani, the Valorians are uncultured savages. According to the Valorians, the Herrani are weak, preferring to enhance their culture via the arts rather than through shows of strength. Through Kestrel’s eyes, readers are able to see the flaws of both groups, to be able to humanize both sides. Over the course of the novel both groups commit acts that are reprehensible, but that’s the nature of humanity. We make mistakes, we learn from them, we become better people.
Kestrel and Arin’s relationship could also have become problematic and trope-laden with her the mistress to his slave. But it doesn’t. Although Kestrel is the protagonist of this story and undergoes the most amount of growth, she’s not alone in realizing the inherent problems in her understanding of the world, and Arin also undergoes a good deal of growth. More than that, each of their blossoming revelations about their world can more or less be directly attributed to their relationship with one another. They challenge each other to face harsh truths and learn from them. As a reader, I did buy into their relationship and look forward to seeing it develop further.
One thing that really would have helped out the worldbuilding in this book is a map. Now to be clear here: I don’t think that every fantasy book needs a map, or even deserves one. My reasoning in this case is that a map could have added some clarity to Kestrel and Arin’s world. Much of the novel’s culture and the antagonism between the warmongering Valorian and artistic Herrani people was inspired by Greco-Roman conflicts. That is clear enough, and Rutkoski even admits to that influence in her note at the novel’s end. Outside of that, I’m not sure I had a clear enough understanding of this fantasy world, however.
Besides conquering other people, what do the Valorians hope to accomplish? Conquest for the sake of conquest isn’t enough. Readers are given plenty of context surrounding the conquest and decade-long subjugation of the Herrani people, but that’s about it for the depth of historical context. Even within the present day, little is revealed about the cultures beyond the warlike aggression of the Valorians (and also their genteel social lives) and the oppression of the Herrani. At one point Rutkoski mentions that the Herrani have a religious system. But I want more. I want my fantasy worlds to be so fully explained, so fully imagined that they feel real to me. The world of The Winner’s Curse is not there quite yet, but I am hopeful that Rutkoski will introduce more history and context in future installments of this series.
This story also felt a little convenient in many ways, or perhaps just a bit too simplistic at times. Kestrel and Arin both struggle and do put in some effort, but their losses are minimal (at least within the course of the story and in comparison to the extent to which things could have gone wrong). The concept of a “winner’s curse,” where the winner ostensibly loses by paying too high a price for her winnings, is repeated many times throughout the novel. At times it felt as though Rutkoski really wanted to make sure her readers understood the point she was trying to make. Besides the repetition of that theme, however, its final presentation is over-the-top ridiculous. Kestrel uses that concept to sway an incredibly powerful figure in a way that just wouldn’t happen.
As much as I enjoyed Kestrel and Arin’s relationship, I also think that they become a bit too quickly swayed by the influence of the other. Both have lived their entire lives thus far as products of their culture and have adopted their culture’s way of looking at the world. As I mentioned before, I like that getting to know each other forces Kestrel and Arin to face some harsh, unwanted truths. But the degree in which they’re willing not only to see these injustices but actively fight against the systems in which they were raised seems a bit unrealistic.
Clearly I was not the most satisfied reader here. But I still did devour this book over the course of a weekend. I really like Kestrel and Arin’s characterizations, their relationship, and the central conflict between the Valorian and Herrani peoples. That is where this novel is the strongest. If Rutkoski is able to flesh out the world more and add more layers of complexity, I can see myself loving future installments. Still, this is a promising start to a new fantasy series.
Rating: 3.5 stars