Title: The Winner’s Curse
Author: Marie Rutkowski
Published: March 2015
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love. They were never meant to be together. As a general’s daughter, seventeen-year-old Kestrel enjoys an extravagant and privileged life. Arin has nothing but the clothes on his back. Then Kestrel makes an impulsive decision that binds Arin to her. Though they try to fight it, they can’t help but fall in love. In order to be together, they must betray their people . . . but to be loyal to their country, they must betray each other. Set in a new world, The Winner’s Curse is a story of rebellion, duels, ballroom dances, wicked rumors, dirty secrets, and games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.
Characterization and badassery
This is one of those books that didn’t grab me with the blurb. It sounded a lot like a YA version of a regency romance. The book didn’t read that way.
We get two protagonists. Kestral is the general’s daughter and Arin is a spoil of war from ten years prior. As such, he and his people are enslaved, even though they had once had the superior society position.
Rather than being regency in style, this is more ancient world. Think Ancient Greece and its concur by the Roman empire. Kestral’s people are strong and prize the ability to fight. I like that men and women are treated equally in this regard. A warrior or a guard is just as likely to be a woman as a man, and I like that twist on the ancient world. Kestral’s father is always trying to convince her to join the military. Although she is only adequate as a fighter in her society (which has a higher bar for prowess than most-I picture her people like Spartans), she’s a good strategist.
Arin, for his part, keeps his passion for escaping slavery mostly hidden. Some might characterize him as brooding, but I don’t see it that way. Dude was enslaved as a child, his family killed, and is forced to behave as a “proper” slave just to survive long enough to find a time to rebel. So it’s only natural he should have some dark moments, right? Still, he’s articulate, sensitive, and brutal when he needs to be.
I guess this is a long way of saying that I liked the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t setup of this story. This is Romeo and Juliet, if they were locked into mortal combat and torn between their love for each other and their desire for their people to survive.
Plot and pacing
It was slow at first, with an uncertain plot. The author takes time to demonstrate who the characters are and why they have a connection. I didn’t mind this slowness. Slow doesn’t mean bad. This is a series, after all, and all of the groundwork must be laid in order to springboard off that to create a whole world.
Once that groundwork was laid, the pace was steady and the plot eventually solidified.
Prose and editing
Excellent editing, professional, everything as it should be. As for the prose. This is beautiful prose. Atmospheric, evocative, and a pleasure to read. I really got rooted into something as simple as a song, from just one beautifully written line. I loved that. Some of the most wonderful prose I’ve read since . . . well, I don’t know. That’s how long it’s been.
Noo, not funny. I wouldn’t say the mood was dark or grim, as there are occasional moments of lightness. I guess I’d say the mood is frequently desperate, with a hearty sprinkling of longing.
There were a number of phrases that struck me as particularly evocative. I don’t think I can pick one, and really, I don’t want to ruin it for you by putting it here, because the quotable quotes in this book are like yummy little Easter eggs that are best when they come as a surprise.
If you like a love story that isn’t a romance and might not get a happily-ever-after, this might be for you. The author has taken pains to turn the tables between slaver and enslaved, tilting the balance of power and perspective back and forth, which I found interesting. Choices are difficult when they mean either betraying the one you love or betraying your people.
I particularly enjoyed this story, due to its combination of beautiful prose and dynamic characters. I didn’t even mind that it ended on a cliffhanger, essentially. I usually hate cliffhangers, but it was the right place to leave off for this book. The groundwork is laid for things to get more complicated, and the characters now have the chance to change and develop in all the small ways hinted at in this first installment.
There are nitpicks I could make here and there, but I find I don’t want to. The author did an artful job of weaving together different elements and leaving plenty of things to expand on in future entries to the series. I intend to start on the next book right away.