I feel as though I have two different standards when it comes to fantasy. Either it must be fun and funny (in which case I will voluntarily overlook any number of plot holes – see: Croak, for sci-fi, Stitching Snow), or it must be serious, and of the absolute highest quality. I’m not saying that a book can’t be both excellent and fun (after all: Unspoken), I’m just saying that there’s a strange dichotomy in my head that awards high marks to books that make me laugh. All that to say… I like my thoughtful fantasy nearly flawless. Know what? Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse met and exceeded those expectations.
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.
Kestrel is a privileged young scion in a society where there are two paths open to any young woman: military enlistment or marriage. Luckily, she has a few years until she will be forced to make that despised choice – despised, because her true passion is music. But as the daughter of a famous General living in a recently-colonized land, her options seem few and poor. When she breaks her own rules and buys a slave at auction, Kestrel begins to see bits and pieces of the larger game she’s playing (cheating?), and she’s determined to win – but at what cost?
Oh, this book! It’s smart and beautifully-written, and engaging, and… emotion-filled. When I finished it I felt like I need to sit still and breathe deeply, to calm my racing heart. That is talent. In Kestrel, Rutkoski has created an intelligent, resourceful and caring heroine who has been steeped in strategy from birth and trained by the finest fighters on offer. And yet, this is not a “fighting book” (by which I mean, a series of action sequences/battles described in great detail one after another)(though there are fights. the knife on the cover doesn’t lie). No, this is a story about a good person weighing the odds, calculating the outcome, and making impossible choices. Kestrell is a badas$. No qualification needed. I love complex heroines!
This paragraph is where I usually summarize the plot. Just, NOPE. I can’t spoil this book for future readers. If you want to know more, read it. It’s flipping good, and you won’t be sorry. What I will talk about is world-building. This is non-magical fantasy. What does that mean? It’s set in an alternate world, and is vaguely historical in nature (no mention of electricity, no science that isn’t present on Earth). There’s a sprawling empire, omnipresent military, and a barbaric stance on subjugated peoples. Think Rome, but forwarded into at least the Renaissance era. And what makes it all hold together? Politics! I can’t believe I’m saying this (because I’m an outspoken proponent of standalones), but I’m glad Rutkoski is writing this as a trilogy. There’s so much to play with: economics, societal hierarchy, gender norms and expectations, and of course star-crossed love.
One comment on “love” – I was so, so pleased that there wasn’t instant adoration in this story. I feel that in young adult lit romance is often forced on the reader, even if it seems to go against the natural inclinations or morals of the characters (and in this case it would have: there’s a master/slave dynamic, differing nationalities, and opposing goals in life). I also appreciated the fact that the reader is never asked to fawn over the beautiful main characters. Kestrel and Arin are described by their thoughts, actions and conflicts before their pretty faces are mentioned. Maybe it’s just me, but that made the characterization sing just a little bit more. Kestrel and Arin’s growing understanding ended up punching me in the gut (in a good way), and a large part of that reaction was due to the complex sentiment that Rutkoski built between the two main characters.
In all, this is an intricate, intelligent book, and it knocked my socks off. Oh, and it’s fantastic entertainment – I couldn’t put it down.
Recommended for: fans of the fantasy and politics of authors Kristen Cashore and Sharon Shinn, those who appreciated the intrigue of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, and anyone who likes their fantasy magic-less and full of plot twists.
Fine print: I received an ARC of this book for review consideration from the publisher, but I ended up reading a final copy from the library. I did not receive any compensation for this post.