I hadn’t heard of Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Trilogy until recently, but with all the buzz about the second book, The Winner’s Crime, I finally bought a copy of The Winner’s Curse a couple of weeks ago. The day it arrived I read 25 pages early in the evening, went out for dinner, spent half of dinner looking forward to returning to the book, then read the rest of it when I got home. It’s been a long time since a book has captured my attention so fully that when I’m not reading it I want to go back to it, and when I am I can’t put it down, but this book did all that and more.
The novel is set ten years after the Valorians have invaded Herran and enslaved its people. Kestrel, whose father was part of the conquering army and has risen to the status of general in the intervening years, sees a slave at an auction and feels compelled to buy him, at any cost, setting off a chain of events she could not have anticipated.
It is the story of an enslaved nation taking action against its oppressors, but much of that story is told from the point of view of one of those oppressors. By centering the narrative on a girl who was a child when the colonisation occurred, but who has benefited from slavery her entire life, the novel humanises those it would otherwise be too easy to hate, ratcheting up the tension. Yet the book never lets us forget that Kestrel and her friends are complicit in the oppression of thousands simply by participating in their own society:
[Kestrel] couldn’t blame Jess for feeling uncomfortable with the gritty details of purchasing people, even if the fact of it shaped every hour of her life, from the moment a slave drew her morning bath to when another unbraided her hair for bed. (p. 17)
Throughout the novel we see these people who use slaves every day but whom it is impossible to brand as simply evil. Even Kestrel’s father is at once a ruthless general and a loving parent. Rutkoski makes us care about Valorian characters, while also making it absolutely, painfully clear to us that they contribute to the suffering of Herrani men and women.
One of my favourite parts of the book was the romance, which isn’t something I would normally say, but what I like about it is it’s interwoven into the overall story. Kestrel and Arin’s relationship does not exist in a vacuum, but within the complex interplay of power between their nations and standing in society. Kestrel has all the power, and so she cannot pursue a relationship with Arin because he cannot truly consent. And as Arin’s feelings for Kestrel grow, he struggles to reconcile them with her status as his owner and a member of the empire that enslaved his people, living in a home that once belonged to Herrani nobility.
What really made me love the story, though, was Kestrel’s character. As a young woman in a military-driven nation she has been trained in combat since childhood, but she is only mediocre at it, with her real strength lying in strategy – that and her sheer stubbornness. I LOVED this about her. I love girls who kick ass and take names, with one of my favourite characters of all-time being the skilled assassin that is Celaena Sardothien, but what it really comes down to is that I love girls who have agency, girls who take control. Kestrel knows she’s no good at combat, so she uses what she does have – a sharp mind – to succeed.
If you’re looking for rich world-building and plenty of suspense, along with complex, multi-faceted characters, then you’ll love this book.
Nicola is an English Lit graduate with a passion for YA fantasy and books by and about women, neither of which she got nearly enough of during her degree. Her favourite things are books, cats and tea, preferably all at once. You can follow her on her blog and on Twitter.