I like words

The Winner's Curse: Thoughts

4 Stars

“The Winner’s Curse is when you come out on top of the bid, but only by paying a steep price.” 

I am surprised that I enjoyed this, perhaps because I expected it to be another YA romance masked as fantasy; the same story told with different characters in another author's version of the same fantasy world.

While The Winner's Curse has all the elements I've come to expect in YA, I was pleasantly surprised by the characters and storyline.

On the surface, this is a romance. It is marketed as such on the back cover copy - a mistake in my opinion. Never mind my pet peeve of book blurbs that tell the whole damn story right up front - why would I bother to read when you just gave me a two paragraph synopsis and left no mystery? - but it seemed as if all I'd be getting were more details about how a slave and his new owner fell in love. I am glad something pulled me to finally give it a chance, especially because I've had a streak of poor reads lately and was in need of a series to get excited over. 

Kestrel is the daughter of a key general in the Valorian emperor's army, and ever since a young age has been drilled in battle tactics and fighting, expected to follow her father's footsteps into the military. The problem is, as is typical, she doesn't want to do what she's told. She wants to make her own choices and not be forced to either enlist or marry. What is not typical is the little fact that she is actually not that talented a fighter - a fact her father and captain have kept hidden, letting the rumor grow of her prowess with a blade. Her talent lies in military tactics, and we see immediately her love for strategy games, gambling, and her desire to find suitable opponents who can pose a challenge.

Arin is Herrani, captured by the Valorian's when he was ten and forced into a life of slavery. Oh, did you think the Valorians were the good guys of this story? Actually, they are a warmongering people, slowly moving throughout the world conquering one new territory after the other. Herran is the latest of their conquests, a peaceful, sophisticated nation full of beautiful art, architecture, and culture. Valorians are barbarians strongly reminiscent of Vikings, who only became more refined to things such as eating with utensils and hosting social events by absorbing the Herrani ways when they conquered. They occupy the mansions of the previous people who built them, surrounded by possessions and memories that are not theirs. And the Herrani people whose homes they've claimed? They get to work as slaves in households they once owned and see their customs and gods mocked and defiled.

Yeah, that was the first clue I was going to like this story a whole lot more than I originally thought. The next was the writing. Immediately obvious is that Marie Rutkoski is an editor's dream. Well, this editor, anyway. She can turn a phrase beautifully, and her writing is superb.

"He knew the law of such things: people in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark.”

Now to the romance. Kestrel purchased Arin on a whim, and paid a steep price for him. You'd assume that from the moment she claims her purchase, they are together and it's insta-love. That was, after all, my interpretation from the blurb. Not so - much of the first half she deliberately ignores him, feeling ashamed for the purchase and having no desire to put her newly commissioned slave to use. The moments they are finally brought together did not feel forced, and thus grew the beginnings of affection. Curiosity in one another led to understanding and the beginning of a friendship, something neither of these enemies wanted. It's as we get to know Arin that we fully understand the devastation brought on by the Valorian invasion, and begin to see the consequences their feelings for one another will bring. 

This is the point where it would be typical for one of the MCs to completely collapse and betray their beliefs and people all for the sake of love. I appreciate both of them more because they did no such thing. While we saw Kestrel's sympathies for the Herrani situation from the start, her feelings for Arin only strengthened her questions rather than created them.

I enjoyed watching these two get to know one another, as we got to know them personally at the same time.

“Arin smiled. It was a true smile, which let her know that all the others he had given her were not.” 

Rutkoski crafts a good start with The Winner's Curse, shaping a promising foundation for a story I'm hoping only grows in intrigue and its examination of the human condition. Would I say I'm leaping with excitement for The Winner's Crime? Not necessarily...but I'm tentatively optimistic.

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Virginia DeFeo