Farrar Straus Giroux
YA Fantasy, 355 pages
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.
If you ever want me to read anything post-haste, just mention “female-led” or “fantasy” – or better yet, both in the same breath.
My speed will amaze you.
Case in point: The Winner’s Curse. Last month, I was laid low with my annual bout of the flu and had nothing to do but languish with Kleenex and blankets on the couch, and turn to my Kindle for solace.
(Good old Kindle. It doesn’t judge if I’m bleary-eyed and wrapped up like a burrito.)
The previous day, I’d been fortunate enough to slip in as one of the 100 people automatically approved for The Winner’s Curse on NetGalley. The day before that, I’d been privy to an online conversation with Rachel Stark of Simon and Schuster, where she assured me that The Winner’s Curse would be the female-led fantasy of 2014.
See what she did there? My two favorite words, and a bug making sure that homework wasn’t an excuse. There was no way I wasn’t cracking that open when I had the chance.
So, The Winner’s Curse. It hinges on a world deeply inspired by Greek and Roman civilization. There were a few details that I found off-putting and slightly anachronistic: character names here and there that felt too modern (for instance, our heroine’s best friend is named Jess), and ruffled dresses that didn’t seem in the mode of the togas and gowns we associate with those time periods.
However, for the most part, this is Marie Rutoski at her finest. The language remains simple and uncomplicated, and the imagery is overpowering and engrossing.
The plot itself is just as intriguing. Our heroine is Kestrel, daughter of a great general, who is expected on her next birthday to either enroll in the Army herself, or marry and start her own household. She isn’t really on pins and needles for any of it, which is why you can’t really be surprised when she breaks completely out of the mold and buys a slave – Arin – as an impulse purchase.
Let’s be honest: we all have those impulse purchases that we regret. And Arin isn’t just some docile guy who’s going to shoe Kestrel’s horses and kow-tow to her whims without a fight. He has his own dark secrets – not the least being the fact that his people, the people that Kestrel’s ilk now use as their servants and footstools, were once the ruling class, and he himself was nobility.
Kestrel knows she’s in over her head with him, particularly as rumors start to spread and those who are jealous of her standing start to scheme – but she can’t help where her heart draws her to.
And this, my friends, was my only problem with this storyline. As a person of color – particularly, a woman of color – I am more than aware of the historical and cultural flaws with a master-slave relationship. Even thinking of the top of my head, it is hard to picture a romance that was wanted by both parties, and would not end in heartbreak or beatings…or death.
Of course, Marie Rutoski does everything in her power to make it clear that this relationship is not easy for Kestrel as well: her reputation is at stake and Arin himself has his own agenda and potential for betrayal.
The fact that these obstacles are tossed in, as well as several moments where Kestrel has to step back and realize her privileges over Arin – and the other way around – are refreshing, and slightly relieved the uncomfortable feeling I had when Kestrel started making eyes at Arin.
Beyond the love story, though, I was really taken in by the strategy. I’m not the only one who plays video games and loves it when you really have to think about the angles you take, right? Well, the plots and trickery within The Winner’s Curse reminds me both of a really good RPG, and The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner (which I totally love, and which I will press upon anyone who loves a good fantasy with a hint of mythology).
There is no knot that seems as though it could be unraveled. There were no moments when I set my Kindle down and went, “Hmm. Well, that was a deux ex machina if I saw one.”
And the ending. Guys, you know I don’t like to spoil, but is it spoiling if I just go –
Okay. I’m calm now. But really, the ending was what cinched the whole thing for me. I think that, even as I was gasping at the plot twists and clicking my page buttons as fast as they could go, I was still waiting for it to all come loose and end in this ridiculous, sappy “love conquers all” sort of moment.
But the ending, though. It was all I’ve been wanting in YA for like years.
The Winner’s Curse is this year’s Graceling. It’s this year’s Throne of Glass. If you guys are the types who need a gazillion comparative titles before you can be convinced to dig in, I could draw out a few more. But be sure to judge it on its own merit as well. Personally, I am hooked, and I look forward to seeing what else Ms. Rutoski has in store for us…in the sequel.
Which comes out next year.
This is why I both love and hate ARCs, guys.
Of note: Slavery. I mean, I don’t know what particularly triggers people or won’t, so if this is something that bothers you, or brings up personal unhappy memories, please be warned. There is also some violent scenes, poisons, conspiracies, discussion of infidelity, dinner parties (hey, some people don’t like those social scenes, right?) and deaths.
Batteries not included. That would be an anachronism.