The Winner’s Curse is the first book in a young adult fantasy trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, author of The Shadow Society and The Kronos Chronicles. “Bridge of Snow,” her beautifully written short story about Arin set years before The Winner’s Curse and featuring a Herrani tale, is free online.

As the daughter of the renowned General Trajan, Kestrel is expected to one day join the Valorian military. While Kestrel’s father requires that she regularly train in weapons, both of them know that her military strength is not in physical combat: Kestrel’s gift is a sharp and strategic mind. Kestrel excels at games of strategy and uses her wits to her advantage, but she has no interest in using this ability to fight their nation’s battles as her father dreams. Her true love is music, an unsuitable pursuit for a wealthy Valorian. Their society values music when performed by others but consider creating it beneath them, particularly since it was appreciated by the people of Herran they conquered and enslaved.

When she is not playing piano or following her father’s training schedule, Kestrel often spends time with her friend Jess. As the two are wandering through the city market one day, Jess becomes distracted and accidentally leads them to the crowded slave market as an auction is beginning. It’s too busy for them to escape, and Kestrel finds herself unwittingly bidding on the young Herrani, a blacksmith and singer whose refusal to demonstrate the latter ability as commanded strikes a chord with her. Once other potential bidders see that the general’s daughter thinks this man is valuable, they bid as well. Kestrel wins in the end by paying a rather exorbitant price, but she does not realize how high the cost of this purchase actually is or just how complicated this man will make her people’s lives—or her own.

The Winner’s Curse is a page-turner even though the first part of the book is much slower than the exciting second part. Even with a slower start, I found it really easy to pick up and quickly become absorbed in. Marie Rutkoski has a very natural, easy-to-read writing style, and I also found myself interested in finding out how the relationship between Kestrel and Arin, the slave she purchased, unfolded. Despite finding it difficult to put down, I didn’t find the book particularly memorable once I did manage to stop reading it. While it’s very enjoyable, there’s not enough world or character depth to make it truly stand out, although I am invested enough to read the second book once it’s available.

The setting is influenced by Roman and Greek history, particularly Rome’s subjugation of Greece, with Valoria having conquered Herran and enslaved its people. Other than the fictional nations and a few references to Herrani gods, there is not much about this book that is fantasy. That’s not a negative quality since I’ve enjoyed many fantasy books that are light on fantastic elements, but it does mean The Winner’s Curse is more focused on its characters and plot than detailed world-building. The novel does excel at portraying a relationship between two people in unequal stations, because of course, Kestrel and Arin do fall in love.

However, there is no insta-love or even instant attraction between the two. Kestrel is drawn to Arin at the slave market because she empathizes with his defiant attitude, but she doesn’t purchase him because she desires him for herself or finds him irresistibly dreamy. After she does own him, she feels guilty for her actions and is surprised to later find herself caring for him. Arin despises Kestrel at first, but he comes to care for her gradually as he learns what type of person she is and sees how much they have in common. Even with their growing attraction, neither ever completely forgets their situation because of love but cares for the other in spite of themselves. Both are very aware of the power imbalance between them, and both are conflicted about their feelings with their loyalties to their families and countries. I thought Marie Rutkoski superbly illustrated how two people on opposing sides might react to falling in love and the types of obstacles they would face.

While the book was told from the perspective of both Kestrel and Arin, more pages were dedicated to Kestrel’s viewpoint. I felt like I had a clearer idea of Kestrel’s personality and background than Arin’s, but with two more books in the series, that may change. Arin has a defiant streak and a temper, and he and Kestrel both share a love of music and a gift for strategic thinking. It was interesting to read the interactions between the two and how they each came to admire the other’s abilities, but neither character was entirely three dimensional. Kestrel is close to perfect, given her calculating mind and her skill as a musician. Her gifts are balanced by a flaw, her failure to excel at weapons despite having trained her entire life. However, her ability at strategy over-compensates for this disadvantage since Kestrel is able to make accurate connections with what appears to be insufficient information. For instance, she surmises that a child did not belong to his mother’s husband mainly because he is not an ugly baby like the rest of his siblings were. She is extremely confident about her conclusions, and she tends to be correct even when her realizations seemed to be lucky guesses more than a well-reasoned course of thought.

The writing was more functional than beautiful, but it was lovely at times. The Winner’s Curse is a dialogue-heavy book with short paragraphs, making it really easy to read at a good pace—and I did devour it. I had a terrible time putting it down once I started reading it, although I did quickly forget about it once I did manage to put it down during the first half. The second half was more intense and fun, leading to a great ending that left me interested in reading the next book even if not incredibly eager to do so.

The Winner’s Curse is an entertaining book with a well-developed relationship, but it does not have enough originality or character development to make it truly memorable. In spite of that, I am quite certain I will be reading the next book—primarily for the dynamic between Kestrel and Arin, two people who have completely fallen for each other but who also have the potential to end up as well-matched adversaries.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt | Free Kindle Edition: Chapters 1-5 | Free NOOK Book: Chapters 1-5

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