The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Marie Rutkoski is a good writer. I’ve known that from when I read The Cabinet of Wonders, the first book of her KRONOS CHRONICLES, a Middle Grade trilogy. While the subsequent books weren’t quite as good, I still enthusiastically recommended the series. And I can tell Rutkoski is still a good writer after reading her newest YA entry, The Winner’s Curse, because even though I had some large issues with the novel, issues that normally would have made me not recommend it, somehow, Rutkoski still had me whipping through the book in a single sitting. And has me ending up happily recommending it. Despite my list of things I didn’t like. A curse indeed.
Kestrel is the too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter of General Trajan, commander of the Valorian Empire’s army. Ten years ago, that army, as part of the Empire’s imperialistic expansion, brutally conquered the Herran peninsula, after which it colonized the region and turned its people into slaves, some serving in the very homes they once owned and lived in, now inhabited by Valorian nobles. Under Valorian custom, Kestrel must soon choose to either enlist in the army or marry. As I’m sure is no surprise, she desires neither. Her real love is music, she has no desire to fight (though she is quite the prodigy at strategizing), she finds the boys around her not substantive enough for her tastes, and with her choosing date growing closer, she finds herself chafing ever more intensely at the strictures of her society. This is her life at the start of the novel, and into it, precipitating the events that subsequently unfold, comes a young Herrani slave named Arin, whom she impulsively purchases in the opening chapter. That impulse will not only change her and Arin’s lives, but the entire course of the Valorian Empire and its slave state colony.
Usually, when I’m torn about a novel, I start with what I liked. But I’m going to flip that around here. First, and nobody who has ever read any YA could possibly consider this a spoiler, I have to admit that I long ago grew weary of the insta-romance that has seemingly taken over not just YA, but TV and film as well. So the second the smart young rebellious Valorian beauty bought the smart defiant gray-eyed Herrani, my eyes rolled a bit and I began counting down until they began their reluctant, grudging, oh-no-I-can’t attraction for each other. Sigh.
And then, without going into spoilers, there are several too-convenient coincidences, aligning of events, or implausibilities. I’m never a huge fan of plans that rely so heavily on certain things falling into place or certain things going unnoticed. By giving us the actual planning, and by having several characters worry about being noticed, Rutkoski does make this go down a little bit easier, but the issues still stuck out for me.
Third, and this one I’m a little less sure-footed on, something about the portrayal of both war and slavery in the text felt a little too, well, shiny. Now, it should be said that Valorian slavery is clearly not the American South model, with all its incumbent brutality. Instead, it is more akin to ancient Egyptian or classical Greek slavery, where slaves were mostly prisoners of war (hmm, perhaps I should say here, more like my recollection of said model, which may be wrong — scholars should feel free to correct me), were often educated, and were treated much better than the slaves that usually come to mind when one thinks of the practice. Even given that, and even without wanting vividly detailed whippings, beatings, mutilations, etc. it all felt a bit too removed, even psychologically. References to physical punishment, and to families being broken up, exist, but off to the side, off-stage so to speak (which is also where most of the warfare takes place). In this same context, it seems a bit too convenient for characterization (or at least, for readerly identification with/rooting for) that Kestrel is the only Valorian we see morally/ethically troubled with the invasion and/or the enslavement of the Herrani. It is a little hard to believe and it would have gone a long way toward a richer world had we seen some of that in the side characters. Now, I say I’m less confident in this criticism about not looking too clearly at slavery because one, I don’t know how much of that is truly needed and two, and more importantly, I think it quite possible that this is purposeful by Rutkoski so as to have some greater impact toward the end, but as that would involve spoilers, I’ll leave it at that.
Finally, while I think Rutkoski is often an excellent stylist, at times she veers a bit too close to the line between lyrical and purple, poetic and overwrought. Sometimes this is in the nature of the language itself; sometimes it is because the language doesn’t match its context. And sometimes she can be a bit heavy-handed, as when very early on she feels a bit lost and “[as] she passed through the Warrior’s Quarter, whose dense barracks she had run through as child, she imagined soldiers rising against her.” One can almost hear the organ duh-duh-DUH there.
That said (and here begins the turn), when Rutkoski is on, as she often is, she is captivating in her prose, and especially the way in which she uses tiny details or moments of life, making use of a simple door for instance — its new paint making it stand out for its lighter color — or the time a young mother shields her son’s eyes from the bright sun, or the biting commentary that underlies this simple statement: “All Valorian colonizers had kept their conquered libraries intact. They looked nicer that way.” Many such details strike the reader throughout, and outside of those times, and the few slips as mentioned above, the prose consistently drives the reader forward quickly and effortlessly.
Rutkoski’s choice of what to focus on does the same. When an uprising eventually breaks out and hostilities ensue between the Herrani and the Valorians, save for a few quick, intense scenes, it is handled all off-stage as the narration lets us know now and then that days or weeks have passed between scenes. Personally, I quite liked this approach. I don’t always (or even necessarily want) big lengthy battle scenes, or battles followed by battles, or lots of pages of hit and run raids. Here, Rutkoski chooses to focus on the characters: their relationship to each other, their relationships to friends and family, and their own sense of selves, which of course, as should happen in good novels, ends up different from where they all began.
And despite my annoyance at yet another quick teen romance, and despite the sometimes purple prose describing it, I still got caught up in these two characters, especially as Rutkoski layered on complexity upon complexity. By the end, she had me completely won over despite my prior issues. I found the book’s close wonderfully strong, both in terms of the reader’s response and the author’s choices. The Winner’s Curse could easily stand on its own, but Rutkoski has it planned as the first book of a new trilogy. I’m very curious as to where she takes these two characters, and the readers, next. Recommended.
The Winner’s Trilogy — (2014-2016) Young adult. Publisher: 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 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.
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