The Winner’s Curse
by Marie Rutkoski
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), 03/04/2014
Reviewed by Rosalind Casey
6th/7th grade up
The Valorian Empire prizes honor and military prowess and relies on expansion, conquest, and enslavement. In the recently conquered capital of Herran, wealthy Valorians study war and play at love, gamble and gossip, while the Herrani live as conquered people or slaves.
Kestrel is an aristocrat, a general’s daughter. She has no talent in arms, so she studies strategy and tactics and isn’t afraid to play dirty. But her passion is music, and making music is a job for slaves. Now approaching her eighteenth birthday, Kestrel is expected to choose between marriage and the military.
Arin is a slave, defiant but determined to survive and seek revenge for his family. Kestrel buys him on an impulse that she promptly regrets, but it’s too late to stop the chain of events she’s put in motion, for herself and for the empire.
The Winner’s Curse is a compulsively readable story of the personal and the political, complete with intrigue, espionage, duels, double-crosses, battles, parties, and star-crossed romance. It’s a good balance of love story, adventure, drama and character development—more so than the cover suggests—and it’s sexy and exciting without completely shying away from the harshness of its world.
Arin is a character with a strong voice, easy to like and relate to, but sometimes too easy to like, when he softens too quickly towards Kestrel or inches towards blandness. It takes longer to get into Kestrel’s head, but she is ultimately a genuinely compelling character, frustrating and charismatic, torn between her duty and her conflicting desires. She makes a lot of difficult choices, some of them good and some of them bad, and she can’t always decide which is which. She grows and changes without ever losing her hard edges.