Title: The Winner’s Curse
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Synopsis: 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.
I will be honest, I picked this one up in a bit of a huff after my frustration with the Grisha series in order to simply knock it off my list because I thought that I just hated all YA Fantasy then I was proved wrong. I was led astray by the fluffy cover and I did not expect to enjoy Rutkoski’s writing the way I did. This book is not at all like what the cover depicts. Despite the cover being very pretty I think it doesn’t do the seriousness of the book justice and for that it’s a shame.
Let’s start with a very brief premise before I review. Kestrel is the daughter of the General in a conquered land. The original inhabitants of the conquered land have become enslaved and during the first chapter of the book Kestral impulsively purchases a male slave, his name is Arin. Kestral finds herself surprised with Arin and Arin in turn finds himself surprised by Kestral. That is the premise, this first book sticks to that bare bone but by the end it sets up nicely for the rest of the trilogy. I really enjoyed the world that Rutkoski created. I don’t really consider it a traditional fantasy, it’s more of a YA alternative ancient history with Roman and Greek elements in it, if this makes sense.
In Kestral, Rutkoski finally gives us a YA female protagonist with dimension, inner strength, weaknesses and overall richness that often seems lagging in YA female protagonists. Kestral is a poor soldier, much to her father’s chagrin but he’s a great admirer of her military strategy and is constantly encouraging her to join the army. She doesn’t want the army, she doesn’t want marriage, she truly just wants to be left alone to her own devises because she’s passionate about music and playing the piano. However, this is not a land with Julliard, hers are warrior people and she’s not understood to have this passion for music however this understanding comes from an unexpected source: Arin, the blacksmith slave she just bought.
Arin is complex and I will leave his information vague because I enjoyed how it unfolded through the story. But I did love him, I loved his inner struggle, his history and his survival in the face of grief and opposition. I don’t want to spoil but that scene in the carriage was rather hot.
This is not an action-packed book and it reminded me a bit of The Book of Ivy. The writing is smart, it takes it’s time and it slowly blossoms characters and relationships in a rather organic way. This did not feel like Kestral was 17, she felt older, wiser and thoughtful. This was exactly what I needed in a YA Fantasy book, it restored my faith in the genre and I already have the rest of the books lined up but I will take my time with them. I want to make this story last because I felt myself immersed in the world and the richness of the culture Rutkoski created. And that ending. DID NOT SEE IT COMING.
Highly recommend it for both teens and adult readers.