The Winner’s Curse by Marie RutkoskiThe Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner's Trilogy #1
Published by Farrar Straus Giroux on July 3rd 2014
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 359

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.

5 Stars

“The winner’s curse is when you come out on top of the bid, but only by paying a steep price.”

On a thrilling ride of politics, alliance, and romance, Marie Rutkoski took my heart into her gentle hands and then shattered it into a million tiny pieces.

The Winner’s Curse contains an element I had hitherto unsuccessfully searched for in YA literature: A heroine who is more passionate about the piano than slicing people’s throats, doesn’t have a talent for combat but forges strategies like weapons, and shows her flaws instead of hiding behind a mask of badass. Kestrel disarms her opponents with intelligence, wit, and scheming. For me, she was the kind of heroine I laughed with, cheered for, and suffered with; a strong but realistic female character to look up to but also shake your head at. And what can I say about Arin, other than the undeniable fact that he has stolen my heart and refuses to let go? He’s not a character I immediately connected with, but his headstrong, defiant personality won me over soon enough. He’s equally the strategist Kestrel is, both a match and a challenge for her.

The romance is tentative, neatly interwoven with rebellion and politics, and has a touch of Romeo and Juliet (or, if you’re familiar with the best m/m romance of all times, Damen and Laurent). This is a classic case of slow burn, a sizzle steadily growing between the two until it bursts into a blaze. Another interesting relationship is Kestrel’s to her father, the general who conquered Arin’s homeland. The father-daughter dynamic is a constant push and pull between approval and rejection. Her father wishes she’d join the military or at least marry, yet all Kestrel yearns for is a quiet room, sheets of notes, and her piano.

The world-building is existent to some extent. A general overview of the competing territories and their diverse cultures is given, though the plot is primarily set in Herran, the kingdom conquered by the pompous Valorian empire. There are glimpses of historical events, religious beliefs, and societal etiquette, which is sufficient for a first instalment. The atmosphere of colonialism, rebellion, and shifting alliances is almost palpable. Regarding the physical world-building, there was, however, a tendency to describe the environment sparingly, but overall, it was a solid start to expand the world. An aspect in which The Winner’s Curse is inferior to its sequel is court intrigue, as the first book evolves mainly around balls, dresses, and keeping appearances. Although political tensions run high and there is not a lack of action-packed scenes, which feature duels and battles, the general pacing of the book is rather slow. I’d say that, to discover the web of lies and betrayal, one must endure the pretty dresses, sweet wine, and dancing first. The gut-wrenching ending strikes out of nowhere, fast and brutal, and is a complete surprise after the relatively calm atmosphere of the book; it shattered me.

Last but not least, I would like to emphasize my love for the writing. Marie Rutkoski is incredibly gifted in storytelling. She truly brings the fictional realm and its characters to life, and her metaphors are the most graceful things ever. The gentle but beautiful prose is carefully worded but made to hit its mark, and curse me if I could write like her.

“Isn’t that what stories do, make real things fake, and fake things real?”

The Winner’s Curse is a gentle but enthralling start to a series that will have you laugh and cry and sometimes both at the same time. Let yourself be pulled into the world of a bird of prey who doesn’t want to hunt, a slave who doesn’t want to serve, and a game in which coming out on top eventually results in a higher fall.
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