Review: The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Sunday, March 30, 2014
Title: The Winner's Curse
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Genre: fantasy, young adult
Series: Winner's Curse Trilogy #1
Pages: 355
Published: March 4 2014
Source: I received an ARC from MacMillan Publishers for review
Rating: 3.75/5

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.

When I wanted to be so many other things for The Winner's Curse, for the most part I am just ...whelmed.. by it. I mean, don't get me wrong -- it's not a bad book by any means. It has several strengths to recommend it (intriguing world building, creative and original plot/plot complications, strong main characters) but for me, it was another case of the potential exceeding the execution as well as being an (admittedly well-written) romance masquerading as a fantasy. And that, I think, is the heart of why I didn't love this and can't rate it higher than a 3.75/5.

While I enjoyed this story, I never felt any strong emotions about what was happening over the course of the narrative. I liked Kestrel and the fact that she was shown to be many things (including militarily competent and feminine), but it was a distant sort of character investment. She's a complex mix of many characteristics, but I never truly cared for her, feared for her, felt for her. The same is true of Arin, the love interest, but to a lesser degree. Though given less to work with (due to the nature of his role in the story) than his counterpart, Arin's quiet stoicism and anger were much more personally compelling, due to his personal history.

The Winner's Curse is an obviously clever novel. The ill-fated romance angle so beloved in YA novels has an entirely new angle to play with in Kestrel and Arin's volatile situation. The connection between the two, be it harmonious or acrimonious, drives much of the plot for the novel, as it evolves into far more than a master-slave relationship. If you like complicated love stories (see: Akiva and Karou, Jon Snow and Ygritte) where the line between enemy and friend grow confused, the parallels here will likely involve you. Her people may have brutally conquered his when they were kids, but his betrayal is on a smaller, personal level.

For all that this is being labelled as a epic fantasy, it seems to be a rather on the "low fantasy" end of the spectrum as opposed to epic or high fantasy. The worldbuilding is minimal, there is little to no magic/power system, the total human dominance of the population, and it lacks the narrative definition about whether the planet depicted is a fictional world, or a different stage of Earth itself. Everyone identifies genres differently, but for me, that lands The Winner's Curse solidly in the low fantasy camp. This isn't a slight, but genre fans like me who go in looking for that type of fantasy are not going to find it here.

Clearly, after successes like Maas' Throne of Glass/Crown of Midnight and the Shadow and Bone series by Leigh Bardugo, various types of young adult fantasy on the rise. It's a more than welcome new trend if it keeps turning out gems like Rutkoski's first in a series. It's especially nice to see three-dimensional female characters being represented so heavily as well -- Kestrel is welcome addition to the Celaenas, Aileanas, Seraphinas, Quintanas and Alinas she shares genre space with. And while it maaay have been a tad overhyped for me, there is still a lot to enjoy about The Winner's Curse.

I am very interested in continuing to see what Rutkoski is shaping up after that ending. Book two promises to be very..... riveting.

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