Book: The Winner’s Curse. Author: Marie Rutkoski. Release Date: March 4th 2014.
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (Macmillan). Type: Series
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.
—Mild Spoilers Ahead—
Man, I love this book. I can now understand why so many bloggers with different book tastes would buzz about it up to its release date and months afterwards.
Of course, I was hesitant. Whenever a book gets that much marketing push, it tends to be one that underwhelms you or checks off everything on the list that creates the stereotypically generic YA book. The Winner’s Curse has many things working for it that pushes against the YA tropes but, as always, the foundation of the book is the writing. Rutkoski is a skilled writer especially when this book features a lot of head games and strategy in regards to both war and politics. I’ll even throw in love too as something to be strategized as both the characters and the readers (I hope) start to weigh it as both a cost and reward throughout. There could have easily been a crap ton of telling rather than showing what and who these characters were and, luckily, that wasn’t the case.
What I found really interesting about this book was its characters or, more specifically, Kestrel. For me, I’ve always struggled with the notion of the “strong female character”. We all strive for a woman who is written as a three dimensional person with her own hopes and dreams that aren’t dependent on a guy. That’s it. If men can be complex and multifaceted then why can’t women? For me, I specifically wanted and sought after a woman who was physically and emotionally “strong” but saw it as just the stereotypical definition of strength usually attributed to men. Kestrel reminded me that strength and power are just as fluid and varied as the people who wield them.
Kestrel doesn’t want to be a fighter but has the mind of a very skilled strategist. It’s a desired trait in war as her General father states and it’s one she uses throughout the book in the realms of politics, love and individual relationships with people. Kestrel, however, is also a skilled pianist whose love of music is what prevents her from joining the army along with the obvious reason: killing people. Watching as she reads and navigates around people was really interesting and created a young woman who not only creates art and is a good person but who can simultaneously be cold and calculated as well. Another compelling aspect to this book is the romance or, more accurately, the obstacles involved.
Arin is a Herrani slave and Kestrel is the Valorian who purchased him. If that doesn’t scream inherent trouble, I don’t know what does. It’s a “another time, another place” type of scenario where this pairing could work out but they’re not in another time or place and it’s the time and place that creates the two people we meet. I love how the relationship is explored not only on the larger level of outside circumstances (society) as obstacles against these two but also their individual ideologies and loyalties to their people and loved ones (internal struggles). This is where we start to negotiate with ourselves as we read the characters negotiating what they’re willing to give up and what they can’t in order for things to work. Can it work? Well, you’ll have to read to find out.
Only issue I have with the book is minor but its one that echoed in a lot of fantasy books and, because of that, it stands out to me when it occurs. The Herrani are described as having dark hair whereas the Valorian are described as having blonde hair that can range from pale to golden to dirty (some may even have red hair). Kestrel is also described as being pale whereas Arin is described as darker (although that’s attributed to working in the sun a lot). Why does this matter? Well, there’s so much emphasis on the hair as defining traits between the oppressed and the oppressors which feels like it’s following the same setup we’ve experienced in our history and even currently in terms of racism. Darkness, in literature, is often the representation of evil which is something that is has been echoed since the time of the ancient Greeks. It is, sadly, also how slavery came about and why, right now, the amount of privilege you experience is based on a “whiteness” scale that rewards you the whiter you are. I’m sure Rutkoski knows this being an English professor and I’m sure she’s done it to drive this point across and help us sympathize with the Herrani but given that this is fantasy, I’d like books in this genre (and in sci-fi) to mix things up and remember that they have the power to comment on the realities of our world without having to be restrained by the events and history that have occurred. As a reader who identifies as a minority, this is important because I like to disappear in a world where someone like me will still find themselves in the same situation that they do in the world outside the book. This isn’t me pointing out Rutkoski but rather using her book to launch this critique.
Overall, I really enjoyed this series and I’m excited for the sequel. I’ll give it a 4.5 out of 5.
–A. A. Omer