Book Review: THE WINNER’S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski

Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Age Range: YA
Star Rating:3.5/5 stars
Series: yes - first in trilogy


the winner's curseKestrel is the daughter of the famous, successful general who conquered Herran for the Valorian Empire and enslaved the Herrani people. As she approaches adulthood, she has two options – marry or join the military. Not that Kestrel wants to do either; all she wants to do is play the piano.

On the spur of the moment, she buys Arin – a Herrani slave – at the marketplace. She’s not sure why, and the price is exorbitant enough to set the gossips’ tongues wagging. Though she dismisses the rumours, soon her feelings fall in line with them.

But Arin has secrets of his own – and a dangerous double life. As war clouds gather over the empire and Herran, Kestrel and Arin have difficult choices to make – who to fight for, and who to betray.

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About a month ago, I asked for recommendations of political fantasy YA on Twitter, and this book was one of them. The blurb sounded interesting, if more romance-y than political, but I was rather put off by the cover.

It has a girl in a pink, frilly dress SWOONING. I feared this book would be a flimsy, silly YA romance full of all the typical cliches common around the time of publishing (love-triangles, unreasonable angst thanks to misconstrued comments and overly-surly hyper-males), that the political slant of the blurb was just wrapping to hide this.

I read a few reviews, which seemed promising that the book wasn’t too romance-y or light on the politics, so I decided to give it a go.*

It was fun and interesting, and an easy read. I read it in one day (admittedly, it was a slow day of fire-safety talks and the like). The book had some clever moments. I’m not sure I’d call it political, as there wasn’t lots of scheming (though Kestrel is one clever, observant girl who is willing to manipulate (almost) everyone).

I liked Kestrel. She was clever and used her mind more than her fists to fight her battles. Yes, she obviously does fall for Arin, but it’s not instant. You almost don’t notice it until you’re hit over the head with their feelings. She did have some depth, but I feel like there’s more that could be explored. She’s somewhat callous to the Herrani, but her romance opens her eyes. What I really liked about her was her cold-hearted brilliance, and I was pulled along by wanting to know what her plans were.

I didn’t like Arin as much. I didn’t dislike him, but I was rather neutral towards him. He felt rather shallow, and one dimensional. He was the love interest with secrets who exerted a change on the MC’s opinions. The only thing really going for him was that he was every bit as cold (except for when they were kissing or feeling passionate feelings) and sly as Kestrel, which made them a wonderfully matched pair. It was fun to see them spar off each other, and see whose plans would succeed.

There was enough chemistry between them that I liked them together. I’m sure others might ship them more – they certainly have the potential to be a beloved pairing, if you’re not reading mainly for the scheming.

The world was believable and felt sturdy enough for the book – though, on reflection, it was only surface deep. The writing was very lush, with clever turns of phrase and deft descriptions. I felt slightly hit over the head with the explanation of the title at the end of chapter one (it felt a little like a ‘roll credits’ moment), but the idea was somewhat useful for foreshadowing the ending.**

I enjoyed the third act – I thought it was the most interesting – but there were several logical inconsistencies in my mind which I want to discuss but SPOILERS. Mainly they’re around Kestrel’s decisions to act/not act.

Overall, I think my expectations of this book hurt my reading experience a bit because I was really expecting politics and less romance. If I’d gone in with only the blurb, I think I’d have enjoyed it more. I will read the next few books, and I think going into those with lower/different expectations will help.

*On the review note, a few reviews said the parallels with Ancient Rome were very obvious and made the world-building flimsy. I didn’t really notice this, and I was alert to it thanks to these reviews.

**I also read the acknowledgements of a book first, because I want to go into it with an idea of the effort that went into the book, and the weight of all these people involved. The acknowledgements (called Author’s Note in my copy) started with an explanation of the title and inspiration. This meant I already knew the meaning of the phrase ‘the winner’s curse’ and understood the foreshadowing, so maybe it wouldn’t have felt so hit over the head if I hadn’t read that.

Read my reviews of the other books by Marie Ruktoski

The Winner’s Curse (this series):

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