EDIT (Feb 2017): This book (and its subsequent books) contain a white saviour narrative, a problematic slavery/master romance, and a problematic depiction of slavery in general, therefore this book contains harmful content and may be triggering to some readers.
I have left the review I wrote two years ago as is below.
The Winner’s Curse had me at the very first chapter. After, I never looked back: I forwent sleep even though I had work the next morning, I opted to remain standing on the bus even though I was surrounded by free seats because I had to – had to! – keep reading, and I may have snuck a few pages during the lulls at work. I don’t regret it though; The Winner’s Curse is a compelling and fantastic read, and it easily one of my favourite reads of 2015 so far.
There is an addictive quality about Marie Rutkoski’s writing. Perhaps it is the way she gives life to her deep, complex and brilliant characters – side characters included. The protagonists, Kestrel and Arin, were great characters; both had their own kinds of wit and strengths, their own set of values and goals, and remained true to their character development in the face of an unexpected, unexplainable love.
Let me digress for a moment and talk about Kestrel. The young adult-fantasy genre has seen its fair share of ‘bad-ass’ female characters. Often these characters know how to wield a sword or know how to physically fight or defend themselves. Kestrel, though not entirely defenseless, admits to herself that she is not a skilled soldier built for fighting. Instead, her combative strengths lie elsewhere: in strategy and dialogue. And I liked that — I liked that Rutkoski showed that a lead female character could have a different dimension of strength and that a woman can be more than a fighter. Women can be strong or weak in a variety of ways, and strength is not limited to physical strength.
Or, perhaps it was the forbidden love story — that two well-written, strong-willed, and complex characters were susceptible to the seduction of the forbidden fruit. However, despite their innermost and secret feelings, the characters try to resist these impulses and struggled with themselves through cold and calculating logic to maintain their facades and remain loyal to their duties (to an extent). Stupidity was arguably situational or character flaws rather than a byproduct of the nature of their relationship. But of course, resistance and internal struggle in such narratives make the fruit sweeter — the subtle passion was palpable and I will admit my fair share of blushes.
However, if there is anything I’d like to praise, it is Rutkoski’s worldbuilding. It is truly beautiful and awe-inspiring; perhaps one of the most wonderful settings I’ve had the pleasure to read and learn about. The world is beautifully crafted, and is rich in history, culture, politics, and tradition.
One of my biggest apprehensions about reading fantasy is whether I am able to completely immerse myself in a unique universe that I have no knowledge of – to build a world from one’s mind and make firm assertions of what is fact, myth, or superstition. In The Winner’s Curse, the learning process of the two main cultures in the Winner’s universe is flawless and seamless. Rutkoski cleverly weaves values, belief, tradition and politics into the narrative, and it never feels like plain, cut-and-dry exposition. The integration of culture and history gave the story and characters life and depth.
It doesn’t stop there though; as well as a rich background, The Winner’s Curse centres on a post-colonial setting where cultural imperialism and colonialism is fresh in its history. There is such a fascinating narrative underlying the novel, and there is a subtle interplay of rhetoric and ideology which is just as deadly and potent as an army and weapons. The differences between Herrani (the oppressed and colonized) and Valorian (the powerful and colonizers) are not simplistic or superficial. Instead, they are interesting, original, and creative, and is conveyed through memories, dialogue, and conflict. Furthermore, the narrative does not manipulate you to take a particular side in the war. There is no ‘good’ side or ‘bad side’; there are just two sides with different views, both that have their own strengths and flaws, and limits of self-awareness.
But my goodness, did I enjoy The Winner’s Curse. There were moments when my heart pounded from its intensity, times when my thoughts and ideals were provoked, scenes where I blushed and was restless from the romantic tension, moments when I wanted to cry out from frustration or heartbreak. The Winner’s Curse is a wonderful, thrilling, addictive and intricate tale, and it has all you would really want in a novel of its genre: betrayal, power, questions of justice and when violence is justified, friendship, and one heck of a romance. Phew! And now to pick up the sequel, The Winner’s Crime.
Book Name: The Winner’s Curse
Book Series: The Winner’s Trilogy #1
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing