Book: “The Winner’s Curse” by Marie Rutkoski
Publishing Info: Farrar Straus Giroux, March 2014
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: 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.
Review: This book was somehow exactly what I expected and completely unexpected at the same time. I still can’t quite decide how I feel about it, but I’ll give it a go!
The story starts off with a quick introduction to Kestrel, our protagonist who, as the daughter of a most-esteemed general and an astute strategist herself, is struggling against pressure to make big life decisions: join the army or get married. Beneath this all lies Kestrel’s true passion for music, specifically the piano, which is not an acceptable life path for individuals in a society where the arts are to be paid for, not to be done oneself. Cue life changing event: Kestrel finds herself drawn to a young slave, purchases him, and FEELINGS HAPPEN.
So, my summary probably gives some clues to the strengths and weaknesses of the story. The set up is pretty obvious and frankly I was a bit weary reading through the inevitable relationship build-up between Kestrel and Arin.
I was much more intrigued by the world itself. What makes the situation presented here so interesting is the recentness of things. Arin’s country was invaded and his people enslaved within his own lifetime, only 15 years ago. Often stories like these involve countries with a much more lengthy history. Kestrel’s questions regarding Arin’s previous life offer a fascinating view into what living in a conquered country would be like, for both the winners and the losers, when history has barely been written. The strengths of the book definitely lay in this area, especially with a twist that happened about 2/3 of the way through the story which really tossed the plot in a completely unexpected, and frankly, relieving direction.
The first two thirds, as I mentioned, were pretty typical and I was at times ready to put the book aside. As a character, Kestrel was…fine. She didn’t pop off the page for me, but she also didn’t fall into any traps that are often the downfall of YA heroines. Arin, for his part, had a lot less page time, but what there was from him was interesting. I did have trouble buying in to their relationship. The author did a respectable job throwing in good moments and discussions that could justify burgeoning feelings between these two. But, especially for Arin, it’s hard to imagine that years worth of resentment, fear, and anger could be overcome.
The twist truly does save it. I don’t want to give it away, as it was a game changer for me with the series, throwing some much needed reality onto a at times a bit cheesy romance plot. I was worried that much of the history of their various cultures and the current society they both inhabited would be too easily swept aside. Boy was I wrong. I was thrilled that the author “went there” on a lot of these issues and really forced her characters into tough situations.
While ultimately the book still came off as a bit too “light” for me, I admire the direction the author is taking this series and the ending really did pull it back from the brink. I’ll put it down on my list to follow-up with the series, but I’m also not in a super rush due to some of these criticisms.
Rating 6: Weak start, bland characters, but ultimately a decent recovery with an unexpected switch in direction towards the end.
Find “The Winner’s Curse” at your library using WorldCat!