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.
I had the opportunity to meet Marie Rutkoski at a Fierce Reads tour stop at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, NH. I had never heard of her or her books before, but as soon as she started talking about The Winner’s Curse, I knew I had to read it. I even picked up a signed copy—I just knew it was going to be good. I’m happy to report that it completely exceeded my expectations.
The Winner’s Curse is a high fantasy that tells the story of Kestrel, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the famed Valorian general who led the conquest to conquer the Herran peninsula and enslave the people of Herra many years ago. As Valorian law states that she must marry or join the military by the age of twenty, her father is putting a lot of pressure on her to follow in his footsteps and become a soldier. But Kestrel’s heart does not lie in fighting.
At the beginning of the book, Kestrel stumbles upon a slave auction. On an impulse, she bids on a young Herrani man named Arin who is brimming with defiance, simply because the auctioneer claims that he can sing. However, once she starts bidding on Arin, the price is driven up higher than his supposed value, and the winner’s curse begins. What Kestrel doesn’t know is that Arin has been planted in her own home as a spy.
The first thing I loved about this book was the richness of the setting. The image of imperialism, the Valorians have colonized the Herrani and are living in the homes of wealthy Herranis who are now either dead or enslaved and have all but wiped out the Herran culture. Meanwhile, the slaves aren’t even kept in servants’ quarters in the nicer homes; instead, they are forced to live in cramped conditions and are treated with disdain.
The next thing I loved about this book is the obvious tone of civil unrest. Almost a generation since the Valorian invasion, younger Herranis don’t even remember what it was like to be free. Those who do remember are filled with bitterness and hatred toward the Valorians, seeing them as barbaric and uncultured.
Another thing I loved was the cultural backgrounds provided. Over the course of the book, we learn that the Herranis strongly value the arts, such as music and poetry. One interesting observation I made while reading is that Herra means “Lord” in Finnish and “Sir” in Icelandic. What I got out of this is that they were a majestic, high-class race. In contrast, the Valorians place their value in bravery, honor, and fighting—no surprise when your country’s name is based on the word “valor.” With complex laws around dueling and death prices, the Valorians place a lot of weight on courage—and they will sooner die on their own swords than be a coward. They don’t value the arts highly, and Kestrel’s love for playing the piano is seen as a waste for someone of her social status as the Valorian upper class has slaves to perform this task.
Now that I’ve gushed about all of the scenery, I suppose I should spend some time talking about the meat of the book. This is an incredibly detailed, absorbing high fantasy. Naturally, because Kestrel and Arin are opposites and opposites attract, they fall in love. But there’s so much tension and competing political desires that I spent the entire book wondering who was going to betray the other.
Kestrel is a really interesting YA heroine. As opposed to the daughter who wants to fight and wants to be seen as more than just a girl to be married off, Kestrel actually doesn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps, but she still feels trapped by her limited choices all the same. She desperately seeks her father’s approval, doesn’t want to get married, but doesn’t want to join the military. What a dismal set of choices for a seventeen-year-old.
You’ll have to read for yourself to find out just why I loved this book. There is no question in my mind that The Winner’s Curse deserves five stars. This book had me totally swept away in its world, and there simply aren’t many books that do that for me so successfully. Rutkoski has a sequel set to release in March called The Winner’s Crime so readers don’t have to wait too long for that to come out either! I would recommend The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski to readers of young adult high fantasy, particularly those with an interest in medieval cultures.