Themes Explored: loyalty, family, famine, empires, conquering, economics, mind games, political smarts, negotiating, court intrigue, forbidden love, manipulation, deception, death, happiness, love, father-daughter relations, strength, military strategy, fantasy, power, culture clash
Synopsis: A royal wedding means one celebration after another: balls, fireworks, and revelry until dawn. But to Kestrel it means living in a cage of her own making. As the wedding approaches, she aches to tell Arin the truth about her engagement: that she agreed to marry the crown prince in exchange for Arin’s freedom. But can Kestrel trust Arin? Can she even trust herself?
Kestrel is becoming very good at deception. she’s working as a spy in the court. If caught, she’ll be exposed as a traitor to her country. Yet she can’t help searching for a way to change her ruthless world…and she is close to uncovering a shocking secret. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: The Winner’s Curse is the second book in the Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski. I previously reviewed the first book, The Winner’s Crime, and the third book, The Winner’s Kiss, comes out on March 1, 2016. The current trend in Young Adult fantasy fiction is for strong, independent teenage girls to take on the world-one emperor/dictator/monarch/priest at a time. Naturally our fierce maidens find love along way. The hapless young man is either beneath our heroine in station or just all around clueless about absolutely everything. Of course everyone is both stunningly beautiful and off the walls intelligent. Now, I have no problem with strong female lead characters. However, a majority of the current crop of YA heroines are interchangeable and unremarkable. Somewhere along the way character development took a backseat to star crossed romance. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer my characters to have some depth.
In The Winner’s Curse, the action picks up right where The Winner’s Crime left off. Lady Kestrel successfully bargained for limited independence for the Herrani people by promising herself in marriage to the Imperial Heir. She risks more than her freedom when she decides to become a spy, while managing to convince everyone of her undying devotion to the Valorian Empire. The hardest person to convince outside of the Emperor is Arin; once her slave, then her captor, and now the governor of Herran. The fate of thousands of peoples, kingdoms, empires, and Herrani civilization hangs in the balance; one misstep and everything will go up in smoke. Kestrel barely manages to keep everything in place, though one visit from Arin threatens to unravel all her carefully organized plots.
This installment deals with two main plots: Kestrel’s love affair with Arin and the “peace” negotiation between Valoria and Herran. Like any good YA couple, Kestrel and Arin are deeply in love yet terribly mistrustful of each other. We all know that solid relationships are built on mistrust, lust, and blinding attraction. Kestrel possesses a sharp intelligence and a quick wit, which gets her into and out of trouble nearly every chapter. Arin is the emotional half, equally intelligent but less willing to listen to reason. After all, Kestrel broke his heart in order to save his country. So he decides to walk around moping and put on his best display of male stoicism and hard heartedness. Really all the angst gets rather frustrating at times.
In case you forgot, or did not read the first book, Arin met Kestrel when she bought him at a slave auction. Then he helped lead a rebellion about the Valorians living in Herran and took Kestrel captive. He then let her escape and they have been longing to be with each other ever since. I mean all the best romances begin with Stockholm syndrome and end with marriage. Other than this lovely how we met story and a few overly contrived conversations, Kestrel and Arin have an incredibly flimsy relationship. Now, I think this particular star crossed romance could come across as more realistic with some character development. Neither Kestrel nor Arin possess enough character depth to come across as compelling romantic leads. Arin’s backstory is quite thin and most of his dialogue is unilluminating. There just is not a lot there, character wise. Kestrel has a little more depth due to the exploration of her relationship with her father. But her relationship with Arin comes across as forced and unlikely. Frankly, the narrative suffers from the “instant romance” syndrome. The author has the two main characters meet, throws in some dialogue, and bam, they are hopelessly in love.
Relationships aside, there are several aspects to the story that I enjoyed. I appreciate the world building. Valoria is a Greco-Roman style Empire bent on world domination. The people are all military minded and ruthless. When children reach the age of twenty they can either join the military or get married. All Valorians serve the empire by fighting or procreating. There are no other options. Rutkoski does a great job weaving the cultural and historical aspects of the Empire into the main narrative. These additions flesh out the story by adding context to the events. Also, I really liked the parts where Kestrel has to maneuver through the court political system. Royal ladies can be so politely cruel. Herran, now that the Valorians have been thrown out, is falling apart. Famine and starvation grips the populace in an uncompromising vice. The dichotomy between the splendor of Valoria and the poverty of Herran is a great way to showcase the perspective of the two main characters.
Narrative wise, the story slightly drags. Some of the pieces of the puzzle take a little too long to fall into place. Such as the connection between Kestrel’s wedding dress and the water engineer. And there were one too many coincidences. Like Arin happened to know the right escaped slave. Sometimes coincidences happen and are necessary to drive a narrative forward. But five coincidences comes across as four too many. Once again the plot lacks in depth and character development. The basic premise of the story is great and the world building is fantastic. However, I struggled to connect with the characters and did not care what happened to either of them. The romance, in my opinion, felt flat and unimaginative. Overall, The Winner’s Curse was exactly the type of sequel I was expecting. It was not a terrible way to spend two hours, but I doubt I will ever reread or buy the books.
The Winner’s Crime, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2015, ISBN 9780374384708