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.
I really love Marie Rutkoski. The Shadow Society was great, and her middle-grade seems really intriguing. I love Rutkoski so much, I knowingly started reading a fantasy romance. Kestrel is a noblewoman, privileged, wealthy, and living with her father in an occupied country. The former leaders and aristocrats of that country are now house slaves, while the indigenous peasants are just straight up slaves. So that’s nice. Her best friend is a twit named Jess, and she has a brother named Ronan. Ronan and Kestrel have an Alina/Mal relationship from early on in Shadow and Bone, meaning Ronan flirts with Kestrel, but Ronan flirts with everyone, so Kestrel does not believe he has real feelings for her. Arin, introduced as Smith, is a slave, bought by Kestrel on a whim when she and Jess happen by a slave auction one day. Arin is a skilled blacksmith, and I worried about the implications involved in a slave/master romance. Some would say it’s not possible for a slave to consent to romantic feelings because of the power held over them by their owners. They were owned. They aren’t considered people. Arin makes reference to the fact that some Valorians call the slaves “animals,” something that should sound familiar to any American with any knowledge about slavery here. In The Crown of Embers, Elisa and Hector are in love, but Hector is Elisa’s subordinate. Hector is duty-bound to do as Elisa says, even if he doesn’t want to, and risks punishment if he doesn’t comply. That is not an equal relationship. Rae Carson handled that so, so well in the Fire and Thorns series, by the way. I worried that Rutkoski wouldn’t acknowledge the imbalance of power in a meaningful way.
I really enjoyed the plot of this novel, set in an occupied country where the oppressed were once much more sophisticated than their oppressors. It’s like the Visigoths sacking Rome. Valorians ate with their fingers before discovering Herrani utensils. Valorians also had a penchant for duels, gladiator battles, and just generally finding entertainment through killing. The Herrani had music and art and poetry, which is now all owned by the Valorians. There is also an underground movement, a resistance, as there always is in these kinds of situations. The French resistance during World War II, for example. Politically, I tend to side with lefty revolutionaries, but I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to root for in this novel. Both sides are guilty of killing innocents, and how are we to know what we would do if our country came to be occupied, what methods we would use to be free. We can’t predict something like that. The Valorians invade because they think winning is the most important thing. Win or die. The Herrani could teach them a lot. So there are complicated relationships and dynamics, and it is so hard to hear Jess refer to Arin as Kestrel’s “property,” because you know she is an otherwise decent human being who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but her culture has poisoned her in a way. It’s poisoned a lot of its youth with their slave trade. I really liked this part of the novel, this exploration of the terrible things humans do to one another. The worldbuilding was great, there were no huge info dumps, no incredibly obvious foreshadowing. The only thing that bugged me about characterization is that Arin is the worst person to be planted anywhere, because he needs to blend in in order to have better access, but instead he’s yelling at Jess that she has no soul. He’s a terrible choice of spy. Kestrel is fine, though I did enjoy reading about her having her fingers broken. It kind of served her right. So the characters were fine. The romance, though, continued to trouble me a little.
Arin was a noble. This was obvious to me from the moment he was introduced at the auction. He would have been Kestrel’s equal, had he any knowledge of aristocratic life after the age of nine. He’s been a slave longer than he was a noble, and while he retains the knowledge he learned in those early years (fluency in Valorian, horsemanship, etc.), he spent his life under a master doing hard labor. He’s built up a lot of anger and resentment, and why not? It’s not like the General is a nice guy, despite loving his daughter. Kestrel herself isn’t sure if she’d remain in her father’s favor if she were to lose a duel. So I didn’t buy that Arin and Kestrel were on even playing fields. She dismisses him at will, at one point even having him locked up after lying to him (for his own good, but can you see how, for lack of a better word, paternalistic that is?). That’s not an equal relationship. I do think Kestrel has the capacity to change, and so does Arin, but I wonder if there might be resentment between them forever. Kestrels owns Arin. They aren’t friends. She’s his mistress, and he’s only a slave. I don’t find that romantic, I find it manipulative and creepy. Another thing that stuck with me was when Arin told Kestrel that her old nurse, Enai, never truly loved Kestrel, but was forced to because she was a slave. She did was she had to to survive, which included nurturing Kestrel. Enai was denied access to any children she may have had, and they were replaced by the child of a man who killed many of her people. After The Help was written, a lot was said on this topic too. Did Mammy really love the white children she took care of when she knew they’d grow into their parents, that they wouldn’t let her use the toilet inside, that someday they’d look at her with the same look as their parents? She was kept away from her children at all hours, not allowed to go home at night to see them, things like that. There were many essays written about it, and it’s very interesting. This exchange between Arin and Kestrel reminded me of that conversation in a lot of ways.
I started to like Kestrel less in the second half, through no fault of her own. She can’t be expected to see the good in revolution, so when the Herrani begin to fight back, she is very angry and betrayed. I was amused in an impatient way with her indignation. The slaver mad that the slaves don’t like being slaves. I think my update at this point was “Oh, KESTREL,” because it is really a hilarious sign of her privilege that she thought someone she owned was her friend and wouldn’t lie to her. Come on, girl. At the same time, the life she has always known is over, and that’s never easy. Regardless of her discomfort with aspects of slavery, when it comes down to abolishing it, Kestrel is not on board. And why would she be? Privileged class. I spent some of this time hoping Jess would be murdered also, because I am mean and cold-hearted. I am indifferent to Ronan. Why is romance always lost on me? It’s a curse (no pun intended). Arin, for his part, is doing a great job of looking like a fool for letting Kestrel be a jerk to him and his cousin, Sarsine. Kestrel is a jerk, but she’s right that Arin’s making sad puppy eyes at her all the time is undermining his reputation. Arin isn’t much of a leader if you ask me. Not if he lets one mouthy daughter of the occupier make him look stupid. And he does. Repeatedly. At this point, I was also starting to become uncomfortable with what I saw as the implication that Kestrel is smarter than these people. She outsmarts them, she’s coddled by Arin, she regularly humiliates them, all with no punishment. It’s like it’s being implied that because she’s presumed smarter, she has a right to be where she is, an occupier.
So I sort of ended up hating this one, and this might be the longest review I’ve written in awhile, but I left it with three stars because the plot, at least, kept me interested and I never really put the book down and walked away from it. If the next novel focuses on someone other than Kestrel, I might read. Otherwise, not for me.
Also, hello! I’m back in a limited way. Burnout is still kicking my butt, but I’m hoping all the new books coming out will help spur a renewed interest.