The Winner’s Curse

winnerscurseWritten by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner’s Curse is the first book in a new series by Marie Rutkoski. It is the story of Kestrel, the daughter of a well-respected general in the Valorian Empire and a member of the aristocracy. As a member of the ruling class, she has slaves in her household, all members of the society her father defeated in battle. On the spur of the moment one day, she bids at a slave auction and acquires a strong, feisty young slave to whom she is inexplicably drawn. The book explores the developing relationship between Kestrel and the slave boy, Arin, as they navigate through the complicated political and cultural issues that divide them.

I assume that most people would tag this as fantasy, although this might be a bit of a misnomer since there is no magic or high fantasy elements in this book. Rutkoski does a decent job of creating a historical-feeling, archaic-type setting, thus giving the story a fantasy aspect. But overall, this story has more to do with political upheaval and socioeconomics, as well as personal relationships within that environment.

I liked Rutkoski’s writing style quite a bit. It was solid and well-structured and done in my favorite narrative form – 3rd person, past tense. Her descriptions are quite vivid and her prose occasionally has a poetic quality to it. She really brought the setting to life in a fluid, sophisticated manner that I greatly enjoyed.

I liked the characters in the book quite a bit as well. Kestrel was a strong female main character with a lot of different facets to her personality. She tried to fit in with her society, but found that her personal principles didn’t always coincide with what was expected of her. She also had conflicting feelings about the people in her life, from Arin to her father to her friends. I liked that complexity – strong, yet vulnerable all at the same time. She did fall into a little bit of angsty self-obsession on occasion, but this was pretty mild, and thus, tolerable.

Arin had the same complexity of character as Kestrel but in a more masculine sense. I really liked him as a love interest and liked all the background that Rutkoski brings in about him to help the reader understand his character better. Even though he felt like a somewhat typical male lead, I found him very appealing (as I know we are meant to). I felt like the supporting characters were well-developed and played their role in the story very nicely as well.

The romance in the book was pretty good. I am usually annoyed by too much of that sort of thing, but this used the romantic relationship as vehicle for commentary on the division of classes and the mistreatment that can occur as a result of discrimination. It had a little bit of a Romeo-and-Juliet vibe since there was a romance between people of differing status and culture.

The issues that Rutkoski brings up about politics and class discrimination, as well as military strategies, was very interesting. Not only did it provide a good framework for the story, but it was rather thought-provoking and relevant to current-day issues. So although this is a good escapism novel, it also provides intellectual stimulation as well.

I liked the pacing for the majority of the book. It felt like the relationship between Kestrel and Arin was progressing at a good rate and that the events were unfolding in a measured way, but then after a pivotal turning point in the plot, it starts to take the narrative at a break-neck speed. All of a sudden three-fourths of the way into the book, everything just seems to happen so fast that the good flow was broken for me and I felt a little discontented. At first I wondered if the problem was that the author was trying to fit everything in before the end of the book, but then I found out that this was just the first of three books. So, I really don’t understand why Rutkoski decided to rush things so much. I know there are some readers who felt the beginning pace was a bit slow, but I preferred that over the whirlwind velocity that the author ends with.

Overall, I really liked this book. It is one of the more interesting and nicely composed young adult books I have read in a while. I am intrigued enough by the characters and story line to think about continuing with the series. I really did like the style and would probably recommend this as a very good read.

Review by Rachelle Funk, Skyline High School Media Center
Rating: ★★★★✩ (4 stars)
Interest Level: Grades 9-12

Author Website:

The Winner’s Curse
Written by Marie Rutkoski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
355 pages
Release Date: March 3, 2014


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