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.
Every now and then a book catches you completely off guard. Unlike a book like say The Waking Engine which I knew was going to be something special off the bat, this was a slow burn. The first couple of chapters are really nothing that spectacular. If anything, if you’re cynical like me it sets you up to expect an insta-love star-crossed-lovers kind of plot. Thankfully, and surprisingly, it never goes there. Instead, Rutkoski gives us a thoughtfully crafted novel, a tale of head fighting the heart and a surprisingly deft handling of slavery.
A lot of this book’s success comes down to its characters. Kestrel is smart, but not too clever. She uses her brain to get her out a lot of tricky situations. She doesn’t come off as action star or a super hero. She’s put off making decisions until her hand is forced and she must. She doesn’t fall in love quickly and the love doesn’t change her either, which is always nice to see. Her decision at the end of the book is one that speaks of great maturity. Arin, the slave, is also an interesting character too. Even as he falls for her, he doggedly pursues his goals and doesn’t really let her distract him from what he’s setting out to to which I really admire. This isn’t some tale where the characters swoon and run off into the sunset, which I really like.
As I said, another really successful element of this book is the way it handles slavery. Although it admittedly does feel a bit whitewashed (violence is rarely inferred and when it does happen it is off screen) there’s a real sense of oppression in this world and it really does look at what it’s like when you’re enslaved not far away from your home, but in a place that quite literally could have been your own home. And as a result, as the story plays out you don’t want Kestrel hurt, but at the same point in time, you completely feel for Arin and his people too and you have complete sympathy for his actions. You feel for both sides. It really is impressive.
I will say though, that this book does feel more like a romance than it does a fantasy. The world is not our own, but this is no epic either. For the action of the second half, it’s actually a fairly quiet book, using its time to be introspective and get into the characters heads. This is not at all a criticism, just more of a heads up for those looking for something more traditional feeling.
If you’re looking for something a bit different that is very intelligent and contains pretty much none of the standard YA tropes that you’d expect to find in a title like this, I highly recommend checking it out.
Verdict: Buy it.
Available: March 4, 2014