& Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Publisher: Square Fish March 2015

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Publisher: Square Fish March 2015

Re-release of the first installment's cover.

Re-release of the first installment’s cover.

The Book Itself: I include two covers here, because I much prefer one over the other. I own the paperback copy on the left. Even though it’s a little bodice-ripper-y, with a swooning young woman in a foofy dress, it is well-photographed, the colors rich and the staging interesting. The cover on the right looks awkward, the model too fake and photoshopped (not that the one on the left isn’t photoshopped, but the one on the right just doesn’t seem to fit the story).

My Review: Winning what you want may cost you everything you love
They were never meant to be together. As a general’s daughter, seventeen-year-old Kestrel enjoys an extravagant and privileged life. Arin has nothing but the clothes on his back. Then Kestrel makes an impulsive decision that binds Arin to her. Though they try to fight it, they can’t help but fall in love. In order to be together, they must betray their people . . . but to be loyal to their country, they must betray each other.

Set in a new world, The Winner’s Curse is a story of rebellion, duels, ballroom dances, wicked rumors, dirty secrets, and games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

I am told that I must thank my brilliant (beautiful, talented, humble) best friend for recommending this book and this series in the first place. I will never doubt you again.

With that out of the way…with a book that comes highly recommended, I approach it warily. Is it worth the hype? Will I like it the same way that someone I know liked it? In this case, very much so. I am writing this review and the reviews of the other two books after reading the entire series, so I might sound a little gush-y before it’s due, but this is a series that truly improves with every installment, and has characters, world-building, and a plot that I highly, HIGHLY recommend.

Kestrel (euuuggghhhhh…okay, I had to get over her name) buys Arin (“AH-ren,” not “AIR-en,” I’ve had disagreements with people about this and the author says it’s “AH-ren”!) at a slave auction and takes him to her father’s estate where he joins a multitude of slaves who serve the household. Typical love story things ensue: Arin does something wrong and receives undue punishment from a slave master, he hears her playing piano and loves listening to her play, etc. etc.

What makes this could-be-cliché story better is the well-structured world around it. Arin’s people used to own the land and even the houses that Kestrel’s people currently occupy. Kestrel’s father, a military general, was instrumental in the conquering, slaughter, and enslavement of his people. Intrigue! Conflict! Add to all that a plot to overthrow Kestrel’s people, which involves both of our protagonists (who are falling in love at the same time). And you have yourself a story.

Now, this first installment is heavier on the romance, light on the world-building and fighting. In a way it is one big set up to the books that come next: the real meat of the series. That’s not to say The Winner’s Curse here is bad. If it were, I never would have continued on. But it feels more superficial than the others. Far more time is spent dressing Kestrel in pretty dresses (although she does get to – spoiler alert – duel someone, so that’s pretty badass), and swanning around at various social engagements than actual political intrigue or grisly military battle. But it does have a buzzy undercurrent of things to come, of a pot of water just on the cusp of boiling.

And when the Big Event does arrive in this story, it is well-written, tightly wound, and has you gobbling up the pages. And then my favorite part: it doesn’t end there. It would be so easy to end the story at the end of a battle that is going to change the course of history for both sides of this world. It would be what most stories, and most writers would do. A movie franchise (please, please, please) of this might end as soon as the dust settles. But the book continues, shows the immediate aftermath, turns the tables between Kestrel and Arin and explores that different dynamic. THEN it forces Kestrel to make a huge, relationship-changing decision to round out the story. Not only hers and Arin’s relationship, but her relationship to her father and her people as well.

The romance is pretty spicy, too.

I will admit that The Winner’s Curse is my least favorite of the trilogy. But that’s not saying a whole lot, because I loved them all. Would highly recommend to those who liked the Graceling series by Kristin Cashore (a friend of the author of the Winner’s trilogy, actually), Sarah J. Maas’ fantasy series, Throne of Glass, and A Court of Thorns and Roses (my reviews of both of those to come), and Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha and Six of Crows series. And anyone who likes a healthy dose of romance in their light fantasy reads.

My Grade: B+

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