Pages: 368 pages
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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.
In the coming months, you’re going to be hearing a lot of people talking about The Winner’s Curse. The story of Kestrel, a general’s daughter who impulsively buys a slave from an auction, has the feel of a historical fantasy without slotting neatly into either category; it’s not directly inspired by any particular period, nor does it contain any magic. Rather, it is a perfectly self-contained, handsomely realized world of its own, and one that I found incredibly imaginative and thrilling. If you’re a fan of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy or Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars series, you must get your hands on this as soon as it’s available!
I loved so many of the memorable characters that live in this world. Kestrel must enlist in the military or be engaged by the age of eighteen; while she’s headstrong, her willingness to keep an open mind, her concern for others, and her dedication to her duty overrides any youthful missteps. She has a sense of command that comes from both her position of wealth and from a strong inner core, and she is written in a way that believably portrays a girl from privileged background who becomes restless when she realizes that her own prosperity comes at an unforgivable price. I appreciated her observant, questioning nature, as well as her caution; in that regard, she reminds me quite a bit of Tessa Gray from The Infernal Devices–who just happens to be one of my favorite YA heroines.
Kestrel listened. She saw, yet again, that her friend’s compliments were just bits of art and artifice. They were paper swans, cunningly folded so they could float on the air for a few moments. Nothing more. Kestrel felt something within her lessen. She didn’t know, however, whether that something was tension, easing into relief, or expectation, dwindling into disappointment.
Every supporting character has a story, from Kestrel’s old nurse Enai to her childhood friends Jess and Ronan. I especially liked the depiction of Kestrel’s father General Trajan, a busy man who urges his daughter to her duty, but who speaks to her with gruff care, whether he’s discussing Valorian military history and strategy or looking out for her future.
“Kestrel.” The general touched her shoulder. When he spoke, his voice was uncharacteristically hesitant. “It’s every child’s duty to survive her parents. My profession isn’t a safe one. I would like–Kestrel, when I die, do not mourn me.”
She smiled. “You do not command me,” she said, and kissed his cheek.
The moments are brief, but the affection is so very real.
And of course, then there’s the slave Arin, whose subservient surface hides tight-lipped defiance and deep pain. There’s gravity shown for the outrage of human slavery, as well as for the misery of displacement and subjugation, without being too heavy-handed. There’s also a beautiful passion and restraint in the subtle, slow-blooming romance, which to me is all the more poignant because these two cannot express their feelings. If you’ve ever had someone stir your interest but didn’t dare to think about it, if you’ve ever felt a deep yearning for something you knew you couldn’t have, you’ll understand Kestrel and Aerin’s plight. All their moments together were just lovely, from their initial clash of purposes to their quietly humorous companionship. Trust, loyalty, deception, and anguish are all part of the challenges that they must overcome.
Music plays an important role in this book as well. I’m not always drawn to this element in YA books, but the author writes about music in a way that beckons you note by note until you’re helplessly lost in the moment. Music is a metaphor for passion in this story with bewitching results, and it’s also greatly effective as a foreshadowing device.
It was almost dusk and Arin was returning from the stables to the slaves’ quarters when he heard it.
Music. He went still. His first thought was that the dreams he had almost every night were spooling out of his head. Then, as notes continued to pierce through wavering trees and dart over the whir of cicadas, he realized that this was real.
It was coming from the villa. Arin’s feet moved after the music before his mind could tell them to stop, and by the time his mind understood what was happening, it was enchanted, too.
The notes were quick, limpid. They struggled with each other in gorgeous ways, like crosscurrents at sea. Then they stopped.
Arin looked up. He had reached a clearing in the trees. The sky grayed to purple. Curfew was coming.
He had almost regained his senses, had almost turned back, when a few low notes stole into the air. The music now came in slow strokes, in a different key. A nocturne. Arin moved toward the garden. Past it, ground-floor glass doors burned with light.
Curfew had come and gone, and he didn’t care.
He saw who was playing. The lines of her face were illuminated. She frowned slightly, leaned into a surging passage, and dappled a few high notes over the troubled sound.
Night had truly fallen. Arin wondered if she would lift her eyes, but wasn’t worried he would be seen in the shadows. He knew the law of such things: people in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark.
This world is filled with a loving eye for detail. It’s lovely to read about tea, hibiscus cake with peeled oranges, red velvet dresses, and carriages, but I also liked the game of Bite and Sting that is played with ivory tiles, as well as a clever structure and storytelling that never shows its seams. The use of language felt intuitive enough that a sometime-fantasy lover like me was able to slip into the world easily even with different terminology and customs. The pensive mood of the book was also a welcome change from other fast-paced YA novels that don’t take the time to let the characters reveal themselves for who they really are–it’s so much more interesting when betrayal shocks someone into action only after you’ve come to truly know what trusting someone has cost the characters.
My love for this book was well-earned, because frankly, I was doubtful of the early rave reviews. You know that breathless, incredulous feeling that comes over you when realize you’re reading something truly special? You may feel that as you turn these pages for the first time. I know I felt that excitement again as I was skimming through the book for this review, when I fell in love all over again with the characters and language and emotion.
The books that stand the test of time are the ones that speak to something larger than themselves. With The Winner’s Curse‘s themes of honor and responsibility in the midst of betrayal and heartbreak, I have no doubt that there are going to be readers swooning over this story for years to come. I love love love love loved this book, and I hope you will, too.