Book Review # 31: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Number of pages: 355
Date Published: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
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.
I had my heart set on loving this book. I’ve always enjoyed a good mix of fantasy, politics, romance, and war, but I didn’t get the same dreamy feeling other readers have felt. Well, this sounds discouraging, but don’t fret, this book has a number of good points as well.
Background: It’s essentially about the conquests of Valoria, a strong empire, and a nation it subdued,The Herrani. The Winner’s Curse, “a phenomenon in which the winner overpays”, or “comes out on top of the bid, but only after paying a steep price”, begins with seventeen-year old Kestrel. Kestrel, being the daughter of a General, has always been forced to choose between joining the military or getting married, neither of which she finds particularly appealing. Kestrel thinks of the winner’s curse when after stumbling upon an auction, she bids a very high amount for a slave who has unremarkable traits, minus wielding weapons and singing (though this she is not certain of). The events that will transpire after the transaction will surely make Kestrel think that she paid a much greater price than what she did, a price that brought about more unintended consequences than what she bargained for.
The Better Half
First, the writing. It’s smooth and subtle. It doesn’t drown in profound statements and yawn-inducing phrases. It only tries and succeeds in producing an atmosphere fitting for the world it fabricates. It is also not heavily loaded with information. Historical accounts are kept to a minimum, mostly prerequisites. In fact, I found it to be more culture-loaded, which would have been very engaging if not for the dilly dallying attitude it exudes.
The story: The battle of wits between Arin and Kestrel were better reads than the “tame war” (or so I’d like to call it) narrated during the second half. I was not drawn to the characters, but to their ideas, Kestrel’s in particular. She’s a shrewd mess, and though her other traits are far from likable, her cunning mind will enable you to tolerate everything else.
The ending: I assure you, this novel doesn’t have much of a twist. It’s mostly blah during the first half, and wimpy during the second half, but the ending was surprisingly intriguing. It’s the kind that makes you drop what you’re doing to purchase or borrow the next book in the series. It is that provoking.
What Went Wrong
World Building: This world isn’t entirely new to anyone. Valoria can very well be compared to the strong nations of today. The conqueror-conquered relationship is also not something that is rarely explored. The characters are familiar, only because you’ve probably encountered similar types in movies, as well as in other books. I don’t know, I just did not find any concept that distinguishes this book from books of the same genre.
Pacing: I found the pacing to be very slow during the first half. I was really engaged during the auction, but after that, I just felt lost. The story was in a lull for about a hundred pages. I understand that it was probably building some sort of foundation for some ghastly twist. I half-expected this, but it wasn’t. Even the second half of the book wasn’t enough to satisfy my cravings. The power struggle was apparent, yes, but everything else was so docile. Even the supposedly action-filled events are done behind-the-scenes, and the spotlight very often shifts to Kestrel and Arin’s relationship. I mean, what in the world. I think we’re due for some action here.
The characters: Again, the only thing I found noteworthy were Kestrel’s and Arin’s ideas, their ideas, their thoughts, the inner workings of their mind, not their characters per se. I wasn’t drawn to their struggles, nor to the jeopardy that transpired in the past. The other characters are also uninteresting. General Trajan didn’t leave much of an impression. Captain whoever, Ronan, and Jesse, also did not. Everyone’s just coming and going, like “oh, this is my scene. I’ll do my best.” then “Okay, I’m done.” I’m not the emotional type, but you can at least try to make me empathize with your situation.
The romance: It bothered me a little, just a little. It wasn’t the typical slow-moving attraction that made me troubled. It was the sudden transformation of the two characters during the second half . The attraction was too subtle during the first half, and too pronounced during the second half. It wrecked what I knew about the characters. Maybe it’s a consequence of love or war, nobody knows.To be fair though, the pairing still intrigues me, and I do hope the second book will make me have a more positive perspective.
The verdict: The Winner’s Curse is certainly not for everyone. The world building is not entirely new, the pacing is a little unbalanced. It has average characters, and a romance that will make you feel conflicted. However, it’s probably the right book for readers fascinated by war, politics, and all that comes with it – this includes mental combat, revolts, gambling, blackmail, and the occasional bloodshed. Despite its unfavorable qualities, I still have high hopes for the second book. I’m counting on it to turn things around, fingers crossed.
On the other hand, I really, really love that cover.
Favorite Quotes from the Winner’s Curse
He knew the law of such things: people in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark.
She reminded herself bitterly that this was what curiosity had bought her: fifty keystones for a singer who refused to sing, a friend who wasn’t her friend, some one who was hers and yet would never be hers.
How much easier everything would be if that were so. But Kestrel wouldn’t let herself consider the truth. She didn’t want to know its shape or see its face.
“My soul is yours”, he said. “You know that it is.”