Themes Explored: fantasy, romance, young adult, historical fantasy, high fantasy, war, social hierarchy, slavery, forbidden love, mistress-slave dynamics, parental expectations, parent-child relations, conquest, friendship, longing, music, rebellion, regret, homesickness, independence, torture
Synopsis: 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. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: Like An Ember in the Ashes, The Winner’s Curse is also set in a pseudo-Roman society. In this instance, the Valorian Empire is in the midst of civilizing the conquered lands of the Herrani. This is an interesting premise for a book, though hardly original. One of the elements I enjoy about the young adult genre is the ability for authors to take the same themes and create completely different stories. I know this is true for most genres, but trends are much easier to measure in the young adult genres. This is because similar books tend to arrive at the same time; such as Hunger Games and Divergent. The Winner’s Curse is the first book in The Winner’s Trilogy. The third book, The Winner’s Kiss, arrives on March 26th. The Winner’s Crime is the second one, which I will review in a few days. For the most part the narrative is satisfying but lacking in any real substance.
A winner’s curse is a phenomenon that can occur in auctions with incomplete information. Essentially, a “curse” happens when the winner of the auction overpays for the item. A winner may end up with a curse in two ways: 1) the winning bid is worth more than the item, so the winner loses money; or 2) the item is worth significantly less than anticipated. The winner may still have an overall net gain but will be worse off than expected. An actual overpayment only occurs if the bidder fails to account for the actuality of the curse when bidding.
Kestrel is the seventeen-year-old daughter of the most powerful General in the Valorian Empire. For her entire life Kestrel has lived in Herrani, an idyllic country that Valorian conquered years before. All Valorian citizens, both men and women, learn basic military arts and self-defense. From a young age, Kestrel demonstrated a keen mind and an unmatched ability for political stratgey. However, her real passions lies in music and strategy games; which is a power her father wants her to use by enlisting in the military. When an aristocratic Valorian woman reaches the age of eighteen, she must wither enlist in the military or find a husband. Two options Kestrel finds unappealing. Before she reaches the age of majority, Kestrel escapes into the world of music and sneaking into the market to gamble. While in the market, Kestrel and her friend end up at the slave auction.
Arin, a young blacksmith, catches Kestrel’s eye and she immediately recognizes something in him that she finds interesting. She bids higher than the crowd and wins the auction, at a great cost. However, Arin is more than a simple blacksmith. He is actually a fierce Herrani loyalist who will take back his country at any cost. And he has now insinuated himself in the household of the Valorian’s most cunning General. Yet something else might compete with Arin’s patriotism, love. Against all odds, Arin finds himself increasingly drawn to the complex and stubborn Kestrel. Their forbidden relationship threatens to spark a rebellion more fearsome than Arin ever imagined.
On the positive end of the spectrum, Maria Rutkoski excels at creating a believable narrative. Her prose is quite elegant and captures the nuances of the fictional world. Also, she manages to capture the incredibly tense yet tender relationship between Kestrel and her father. Neither character comes across as unbelievable in these moments. Kestrel’s father cannot decide whom he loves more: his country or his daughter. This leads to several painful decisions and conversations. I found this relationship quite refreshing, most young adult novels rarely dive into the complexities of father-daughter relationships. Of all the relationships and interactions, the father-daughter one of the most believable and developed
On some level Kestrel and Arin did connect, as friendly enemies. They enjoy playing strategy games with each other and playing music on the piano. However, within the space of two chapters, this friendship supposedly turns into a passionate love affair. Yet this evolution from “friendship” to star-crossed lovers seemed far fetched and unrealistic. The dynamic just does not come across as realistic. Arin is a rebellion leader who was sold into slavery and despises everything Kestrel supports. While I can believe the friend aspect, the love part comes across as overly forced and unbelievable. And Kestrel’s emotions towards Arin do not feel authentic. Nearly every young adult story has some kind of far flung love affair, but this just felt off.
This ties directly into the most glaring part of the novel: lack of depth. The story has potential and an interesting concept. However, there is just not enough character development or exploration into the civilization clashes between the Valorian and the Herrani. Everything felt superficial and unexplored. I was actually rather disappointed in the narrative; I expected something more complex. Also, I would have liked a more detailed exploration into Kestrel’s relationship with her best friend. The second book was slightly better and I will review it at a later date.
The Winner’s Curse, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014, ISBN 9780374384685