Paperback, 368 pages.
Release date: July 3rd 2014.
Rating: 3½ out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.
Reviewed by: Arianne.
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.
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 has grown up on a knife edge, caught precariously between her father’s role as a feared general and the privilege that encapsulates her life because of it. Raised far from the front line, she has no intention of following in her father’s footsteps, but neither will she settle for a sedate existence locked away from the world – and buying a rebellious, defiant slave is certainly one way to complicate things.
I’ve been looking forward to this book all year. I’ve heard so much praise for it, and theoretically it sounds like the perfect book for me – it’s a complex fantasy about war, love and freedom; it’s been hailed for its world-building; the cover is fantastic. My thoughts about the cover are still intact, but unfortunately it lacked the wow-factor I was expecting.
Don’t get me wrong, the writing in this book is beautiful, lyrical and descriptive. In fact, it’s some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever seen in YA – but so much of it in one place, with the plot hanging in such a delicate balance, bored me. There are whole chapters, particularly in the first half of the book, where very little happens. I love slow-burn romances, but I needed more twists and turns. I wanted more unpredictability, more thrills that would hook me in and give me a real reason to keep reading.
As for the characters, I loved that Kestrel was a strategist, but she seemed to have so few flaws. She’s beautiful, glamourous, and filthy rich – she’d fit perfectly into a book like We Were Liars by E. Lockhart if she wasn’t so busy trying to control slave revolts. That said, I really warmed to Arin over the course of the book, and by the ending, my heart was breaking for him. I wish we could have seen more from his perspective. I wanted to love them both, but he’s just more memorable than Kestrel.
The secondary characters – including Kestrel’s general father - are as flat as the paper they appear on. Most of them have motive, but they only serve to add to the plot. It’s painfully clear that they've only been invented to further Kestrel’s story, instead of being given the freedom to grow naturally as characters, and a perfect example is Rutkoski's use of the "ditzy best friend serves to make lead character look better" trope.
Of course, there were plenty of things that were good about The Winner’s Curse. I’ve already mentioned the world-building – which centres on Kestrel’s Valorian society and the oppression of a race known as the Herrani – but there’s also clear, thorough research behind the book, particularly when it comes to the prominent focus on war. I would have liked something different added to the narrative, magic or myths maybe, but it’s a solid introduction to pseudo-historical fantasy in a traditional, straightforward style.
The thing is, The Winner’s Curse gives you the feeling that it wants to be referred to as a ‘novel’, and not just a ‘book’. It’s the kind of story that says, “I’m better than all the other YA fiction out there! I have serious themes and deep dark issues!” but for most readers, that’s not the way it works. This is a ‘novel’ that’s afraid to get a little rough around the edges, that’s afraid to indulge in its grittier, more engaging side. It chooses theme over action, and it’s the wrong decision. I liked the insight into class warfare, but I wanted story. I wanted heart. And while I loved the concept and the scope of the world featured, when I looked for a moment that would turn The Winner’s Curse into a five-star read for me, I was let down.
In short: The Winner’s Curse is a good book. The writing is stunning and the research is clear. It just wasn’t an incredible read for me. I can see why others have enjoyed it, but when it comes to high fantasy on the young adult shelf, I’d choose Throne of Glass or The Girl of Fire and Thorns over this book every time.