The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Ever since Marie Rutkoski’s guest post on io9 last August, in which she offers one explanation for why young adult literature’s audience extends to adults, I’ve been dying to read The Winner’s Curse. Okay, it wasn’t just Rutkoski’s clear affection and respect for both fantasy and young adults that caught my interest—the cover is devastatingly gorgeous. I have come to terms with the fact that I will always pick up pretty books. It’s who I am as a reader, and that is okay.
Especially if they come with plots full of intrigue. Lady Kestrel is the only daughter of General Trajan, a famous general who made his name during the Herran War that saw the Valorians invade and occupy the Herran peninsula, enslaving the Herrani. In the Valorian Empire, everyone is expected to either enlist or marry for the betterment of the empire. Despite her talent for strategy, Kestrel is a mediocre fighter—but marriage barely appeals to her. Distraction comes in the form of Arin, a Herrani slave Kestrel buys on a whim. Arin is defiant, capable, and challenging. He is also not everything he appears to be. As Kestrel finds herself more and more attracted to Arin, she must ask herself where her loyalties truly lie.
Can I say what a relief it is to see a world inspired by the Roman Empire in young adult speculative fiction? I have nothing against the standard fantasy setting, but there’s a reason it’s standard—it lacks bite and uniqueness. You can either elaborate on it or go for an alternative, which is what Rutkoski does. The world Kestrel lives in is a fantastic blend of the Roman Empire and Wildean court intrigue, both accessible and original. The lack of magic means that Rutkoski can take more time to examine the social systems in place in the Valorian Empire, especially slavery.
Which mostly works. Late in the novel, Kestrel proposes the Roman Empire’s usual tact towards invaded peoples—have them run things and pay the emperor tribute, which is how the Empire got so large. But in The Winner’s Curse, the Herrani, previously valued (and envied) trading partners of the Valorians, are enslaved, linking Valorian slavery to ethnicity, unlike slavery in the Roman Empire. And it’s implied that a previous culture was also invaded and enslaved by the Valorians in the same way. But what rings a little false for me is how easily Kestrel questions the system, despite having grown up in it and having benefited from it the majority of her life. It’s certainly not impossible, but Kestrel never seems to have a change of heart over the matter. Which makes me wonder why slavery was involved in the story. Obviously, you can include slavery in a story that is not explicitly about slavery—you have to if you’re writing anything about the Roman Empire or early America—but Rutkoski’s story would play much the same if the Valorians were simply an occupying force and the Herrans the seething natives.
This isn’t just a nitpick on the worldbuilding, because this shades Arin and Kestrel’s relationship. They both talk about how their power dynamic means that they can never be equals in a relationship, no matter how much they truly like each other. But because Kestrel rejects (or, at least, dismisses) the system, much of the censure against them being together comes from cultural norms and the expectations of others, not the law or Kestrel’s own internalized prejudice. This makes their budding romance a little too simple and generic for me; I didn’t feel like they were falling in love until the text told me so. This changes midway through the novel, but by then, it’s a little too late.
All that said, I did enjoy The Winner’s Curse, because I haven’t seen a heroine like Kestrel before. The closest heroine I can think of is Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua, but Kestrel lacks Lyra’s conviction. And that’s wonderful. An ordinary fighter and a brilliant strategist, Kestrel doesn’t want to go into the military because she doesn’t think she’d good at it—she knows that she’d be so good at it that she would lose the little morality she has. She constantly breaks promises to others and to herself and some part of her is always looking for the upper hand. Despite her penchant for music, the empire has clearly shaped her life, which is probably why I find the empire’s practice of slavery having little to no effect on her confusing. She’s restless, ferocious, and a little cowardly, and she is a delight to read about. The novel ends exactly how I wanted it to, paving the way for a sequel that is not a retread of the first book but examines Kestrel and Arin confronting the massive obstacles to their ever being together. Of course, my loyalties lie with Kestrel’s character development, not their romance, so we’ll see how that goes.
Bottom line: Refreshing—if shaky—worldbuilding and a well-developed and unique protagonist make The Winner’s Curse an interesting, fascinating ride. If only the love story were as interesting.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.
The Winner’s Curse will be released tomorrow.