From the BLURB:
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.
Kestrel is General Trajan’s daughter, the Valorian general who conquered the Herran peninsula. Kestrel knows what it takes to win, to make other’s submit and to always come out on top. She knows about war. But that does not mean she fits easily into Valorian society, revered though her father may be, Kestrel feels shame for the way her people treat the Herrani – as slaves since their defeat. This is a particularly hard concept for Kestrel to accept, since she was practically raised by her Herrani nurse after the tragic death of her mother. And, because Kestrel admires the Herrani’s musical ability – she herself is a piano-player, defiant against Valorian society who have little time for the Arts and value strength above all else.
One day, Kestrel finds herself pushed and pulled to the slaver’s market, where she is captivated by a blacksmith for sale – one, the slave auctioneer promises, who is also a singer. Against her better judgment and strong morals, Kestrel buys him – a slave of her own.
Arin enters the Trajan household as a blacksmith, and quickly makes himself invaluable to the General’s soldiers – creating weapons for them, and minding their horses. But it’s Lady Kestrel that Arin is fascinated by. She appears to have no fighting ability, though she is the General’s daughter, but she’s a keen strategist – winning every round of Bite & Sting she plays. Arin witnesses Kestrel manoeuvre the cruel and lusting Lord Inex with aplomb. And Arin watches as Kestrel fights a battle within herself – with the decision all Valorian must make – to be married, or join the army. The brother of Kestrel’s best friend, Ronan, would have her marry him – even promising that she could keep her beloved piano if she did. But Arin suspects the world has more in store for Kestrel Trajan than even she knows…
‘The Winner’s Curse’ is the first book in a new fantasy trilogy from young adult author Marie Rutkoski.
I’d been hearing quiet rumblings about this book for a while now. Wendy Darling of ‘The Midnight Garden’ awarded it 4.5/5 stars and professed “Love love love love love.” Kirkus awarded it a starred review, declaring it "Breathtaking, tragic and true.” And now I’ve read it and all I can say is … wow.
If you listen to the hype coming out of the 2014 Bologna Children’s Book Fair; “realism reigns” once again when it comes to YA (hasn't it always?). But don’t think that means all dystopia/fantasy/paranormal YA books should be discounted as “so 2012” and passé – ‘The Winner’s Curse’ is proof of that. Marie Rutkoski takes fantasy to an entirely new level with ‘The Winner’s Curse’ – and part of its success will probably lie in its cross-genre blending. Here is a book with historical leanings, lashings of fantasy and doses of dystopia, but that is also so frightening and compelling because it also feels like realism – about a war-hungry society who find the tables turning when the people they conquered years ago start plotting an uprising.
‘The Winner’s Curse’ reads like Rutkoski used blueprints of British and Dutch colonialism, together with Napoleonic and Roman Empire historical touches. Yet, at the same time, the Herrani/Valorian history feels like something George R. R. Martin could have dreamt up.
Before the war, Valorians had admired, even envied – yes, envied – the Herrani. After, it was as if the spell had been broken or a new one had been cast. The slave never could quite believe it. Somehow, “animal” had become possible. Somehow, the word name him. This was a discovery ten years old and yet remade every day. It should have been dulled by repetition. Instead, he was sore from its constant cut of surprise. He was sour with swallowed anger.
The universe and setting is fascinating, particularly for the historical/fantasy blend. But what really makes this story stand out is the romantic heart at the centre – between the General’s daughter, Kestrel, and her slave, Arin. Here are two incredibly interesting characters in their own right, but throw them together and you have an epic love story with so many hurdles to overcome, I can hardly believe Rutkoski only has a trilogy planned!
Kestrel is certainly an admirable female protagonist – one of the few in Valorian society who has an issue with using slaves and who, despite her upbringing, has no interest in family (military or otherwise) but would rather create music. Arin is the perfect match for Kestrel on the page – his anger and bravery seem better suited to the Valorians – but he also sees much to be admired in Kestrel, in her quiet rebellions and favouring brains over brawn, creation over destruction.
But the real reason ‘The Winner’s Curse’ is a must-read book of 2014, is Marie Rutkoski’s style. She writes some truly sumptuous sentences;
She wished that Arin hadn’t chosen music for the flute, of all instruments. The beauty of the flute was in its simplicity, in its resemblance to the human voice. It always sounded clear. It sounded alone. The piano, on the other hand, was a network of parts – a ship, with its strings like rigging, its case a hull, its lifted lid a sail. Kestrel always thought that the piano didn’t sound like a single instrument but a twinned one, with its low and high halves merging together or pulling apart.
She has vividly created this universe for readers to get caught up in, and written fascinating characters I can’t wait to get back to. I was also really impressed by the plotting of the story – surprised that this felt like a complete book in itself (though with a juicy cliffhanger) because Rutkoski doesn’t meander with plot, but rather enjoys plunging readers into the thick of action.
2015 seems a particularly long way away, now that I’m pining for book #2.