Also by this author: The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Trilogy, #2), The Winner's Kiss (The Winner's Trilogy, #3)
Series: The Winner's Trilogy #1
Also in this series: The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Trilogy, #2)
Published by Macmillan on March 4, 2014
Genres: Dystopian, Fantasy & Magic, Love & Romance, Politics & Government
Pages: 355 •Format: Paperback •Source: Purchased
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.
How did I not read this book sooner?
Sure I’d heard about it enough. I just went about my business, thinking this was nothing more than the usual and currently popular fantasy/dystopian YA love story. I am so delighted to have been proven wrong. I loved everything about this book, from the plot to the characters to the beautiful writing to the Greco-Roman inspired society. I don’t think I’ve been so passionate about a book since I finished Trial By Fire in January. The Winner’s Curse is the book I’m going to be plugging shamelessly in my book recommendation lists for months to come.
Kestrel is a boss.
Sometimes in YA, it’s hard to find a protagonist who is as strong as the story. Kestrel is stronger than all the rest of the elements combined, and fantastically her strength as a character lies in her intelligence: she’s a strategist. She’s always thinking, plotting, analyzing. She’s bookish without being fragile, yet she’s not conveniently a skilled fighter. She’s stubborn and makes some mistakes in whom she trusts, but she’s always looking for a way to gain the advantage. I admired Kestrel not just as a YA heroine, but as a person. It was also refreshing to read a fantasy where the protagonist is someone from the elite part of society, rather than a ragtag rebel from the poorest district. It’s more meaningful to watch Kestrel struggle with sympathizing with the enslaved Herrani while being a proud member of the oppressing culture, and it makes her decisions and actions carry more weight.
I only liked Arin about 50% of the time.
But that’s one of the best parts of the book! The romance isn’t an easy sell, and it’s far from insta-love. Arin has multiple allegiances and his actions are often in conflict with each other, and sometimes I wanted to smack him while still understanding his motivations while other times I admired his tenacity and his ability to hold such deep affection. While at first I thought I wouldn’t be able to get into the chemistry between him and Kestrel because I didn’t always like him, it made him a stronger character for me because I had to work harder to think about why his behavior was irritating me and what I would be doing in his situation, as does Kestrel. He’s also pretty stoic and serious, so when he speaks it carries weight (such as the last line of the book. I was swooning so hard).
The writing, on the other hand, was gorgeous 10,000% of the time.
Seriously, Rutkoski’s prose bordered on being as descriptive and pretty as Laini Taylor’s at some points. It is perhaps a bit flowery at some points, but it made me feel like I was reading a historical piece without being stuffy. The speech, the narration, it’s all so elegant, and there aren’t awkwardly inserted modern phrases that remind you that you’re reading a book written in the 21st century. It’s also written in the third person, which made it feel a bit more sophisticated. I also love how Rutkoski was able to set scenes so vividly, so that even a scene depicting a game of Bite and Sting drew me in and had me feeling like I was right there participating.
Colonialism and imperialism played a dominant role.
I read in an interview with the author that while the novel is categorized as “fantasy,” the only fantasy element is that it’s set in an alternative universe. The book feels much more like historical fiction, as Rutkoski has said she was heavily influenced by the Roman takeover of Greece, and that influence is apparent in the story. It’s fascinating to read a fantasy with so much basis in history, how Rutkoski modeled the Vallorians after the militant Romans who lacked many artisitc cultural aspects of the Greeks they conquered (like the Herrani), and thus envied them for them. That tension is largely present throughout the novel, and the way the Vallorians appropriate the Herrani culture, from their homes to their foods to their aesthetics, is fascinating. I also loved that the Vallorian culture is so militant in ways that are pervasive throughout every gender, such as the military being an expected and honorable career path for men and women, and how both genders carry ceremonial daggers on their person at all times and are taught how to perform an honor suicide as soon as they come of age. The world building is on point in this series.
There’s a lot of nasty, underlying consequences of war.
This book was more graphic that I anticipated, especially in the dynamic of sexual assault or threatened sexual abuse in a political and wartime setting. I am interested that the series includes (or at least alludes to) this very real consequence of war and grappled with the issue of women being taken as “spoils” of war. It’s a very ugly and real thing that happens during military conflict, especially in colonized territories where the oppressors take “ownership” of the colonized, and it’s an important ramification of conflicts that deserve to be discussed. There were depictions of death and the horrible conditions of wartime makeshift “hospitals,” and how each side views the other as inhuman and is willing to wound and kill for their purpose (I also 100% don’t believe the claim that the Vallorian children were spared and are being rounded up and cared for).
Talk about a plot twist, cliffhanger ending.
I’m not going to spoil anything but SO MANY THINGS happened in the last few pages that really set a changed course for how I saw the series going! Major, major new plot points were introduced and I’m really glad The Winner’s Crime is already out so I can continue on with the story ASAP!
Overall: This book surprised me by standing out against the popular, pretty dress fantasy novels with beautiful writing, a cunning protagonist, and historically based world-building that focuses more on imperialistic themes than a lot of other YA. Even if it weren’t for the romance (which was heartbreaking by the way, that LAST LINE, am I right??) this would be a five star read focusing on political intrigue, warring nations, cultural appropriation, and characters having to ask themselves hard questions about their motives and actions. Read this and you won’t regret it!
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Goodreads Challenge