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
2015 seems a particularly long way away, now that I’m pining
for book #2.