What if winning means losing?

Cover art for The Winner's CurseTitle: The Winner’s Curse

Author: Marie Rutkoski

Publisher & Release Date: Farrar Strauss Giroux, March 4, 2014

The Hook:¬†Shifting power dynamics, forbidden love and revolution. Gorgeous cover. (I’m a sucker for those.)

The Lowdown (from galley): “Seventeen-year-old Kestrel is an aristocratic citizen of Valoria, a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers. Here, a girl like Kestrel has two choices: to join the military or to get married. Despite her skills in military strategy, Kestrel’s real passion is music. Which is why she feels compelled to buy Arin, a slave sold as a singer, at auction. It’s not long before he begins to change the way she sees everything… but he himself is not what he seems. Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for him is much higher than she ever could have imagined.”

Overall Impressions:¬† My initial reaction when I finished (recorded in texts to Emily): “The Winner’s Curse is very, very, very good.” “Emotionally intense and thought-provoking and dang there better be a sequel.”

(FYI: There are more books coming. Sadly, they are not published yet.)

I have raved about this book in every book-related conversation for the last week. I love Kestrel and Arin and the complicated choices they face, how strongly they are drawn to one another and how they struggle to resist that pull. The storytelling shifts back and forth between the two so effectively, giving the reader glimpses into the bigger story of each of their lives and allowing you to see more of the whole picture. And thus you can cringe in advance, because this book is painful in its beauty.

Okay, from here on out, there will be spoilers.

Arin, like all his countrymen, was made a slave when the Herrani surrendered to the Valorians. He is also a spy for for a festering slave rebellion – and a good chunk of the brains for that – and he has made everything within him subsumed to that goal. Getting to know Kestrel brings him to the point where he wants two things he doesn’t know how to make co-exist.

Kestrel’s trying to walk a different balance. Her father is a brilliant general. He loves her and is proud of her, and he wants her to serve their country. But she desires neither the military or marriage to anyone she has thus far met. She wants a third option but cannot imagine it. Arin loves music and can match her intellectually but he cannot be an option. And none of this gets easier after the rebellion, when she struggles bitterly between caring for him and what she must do for her empire and friends.

The Highs: The scene where Arin helps Kestrel style her hair for a party. Oh my word. Restraint and tension and so sensual.

The characters’ internal struggles. Love and loyalty for their countries but also the desire for each other. The scene at the docks near the end of the book, the final scene. I mean, I want the next book, (yesterday would be good) but I would also so admire Ms. Rutkoski’s guts for ending it where she did if this was a stand-alone.

How being interested in Arin as a person slowly challenges Kestrel’s beliefs about empire and slavery in a way that hadn’t happened before.

The love Kestrel and her father have for each other, even as they attempt to out-strategize one another to achieve their own goals for Kestrel’s future.

Fantastic world-building shown by the differences in cultures and how one culture has appropriated all the works of the conquered. The personal libraries of Herrani nobles that the Valorians who now live in those houses never read but would never dismantle either.

Buzzkills:¬† Spoiler for a big emotional scene, so highlight the following – attempted sexual assault. Cheat as the leader of a complex rebellion seemed … increasingly focused on his hatred of / desire to master Kestrel, which in some ways I felt made him a weaker character.

The Source: Advance reading copy from publisher, obtained at conference Emily attended.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor fighting lessons were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.