When I was younger, I created a rule for myself: I will finish every single book that I read. And for years, it was a very simple rule to follow. I devoured books and was always insatiable for more stories and worlds to explore. But as I’ve grown older, I no longer have those long, golden hours in the afternoon to curl up and read. Because, you know, I have a job. Not that I’m bitter about this fact. At all.
My reading hours are more precious now because I don’t have as many of them, much to my chagrin. This means that I have had to become more selective about what I read, and, sadly, to break the rule that I made for myself when I was in elementary school. I can still remember the first time that I put a book down without finishing it. I was in high school, and boy, did I ever struggle to get to the finish line with that book. I grappled with it for days, and then started skirting it and avoiding it, and avoiding reading altogether. Which, simply, was very silly. So I broke my rule. And I still feel a twinge of remorse when I think about it. It has become much easier to put a book down since then, which may or may not be a good thing. I may or may not have even thrown a book down in disgust this winter.
Perhaps I’m more selective, or perhaps I’m just more impatient and just, well, crankier now that I’m in my twenties. But I’ve found that it now takes a very special book to keep me reading. The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is one of those books. In fact, I got so sucked into the book that I read it all in one sitting and had a book hangover for a week.
The premise is simple: Kestrel is a seventeen-year-old girl who has a very famous father. In Valorian culture this doesn’t mean that he is an actor or politician. It means that he is the highest-ranking general in the Valorian army, a man who has helped to defeat neighboring nations and bend them into submission and slavery. The Valorians’ society is bent towards conquest above all else. Which means that its citizens have two options in life: either join the army, or get married and procreate so that we can have more soldiers in our army someday.
Kestrel, however, is more suited to games of wit than displays of strength on the battlefield. And she isn’t interested at the moment in starting a family. While the time is approaching when she will need to make a decision, Kestrel has other things on her mind after she purchases a Herrani slave. His name is Arin, and the more that Kestrel gets to know him, the more moral complexities arise about owning another human and the way that her culture works.
Kestrel has to face the flaws in Valorian culture as she gets to know Arin and begins to understand her own prejudices. And Arin, who seeks nothing more than to be free of Valorian rule, sees his plots and plans complicated when he begins to see Kestrel as more than a Valorian thug. They begin a game of wits and are drawn to each other, but their duty to their own peoples and families threaten to keep them on opposite sides of the game. And once their decisions are made, nothing will ever be the same again in their worlds.
So here’s the thing. The summary above doesn’t sound very different from the summaries of plenty of other books that have already been published. Could the plot and pacing be better? Yes. Could the world-building have been developed and explored more? Yes. Could the Roman and Greek-inspired cultures have been fleshed out more? Yes.
But I still read the book in one sitting. And here’s why: Kestrel and Arin’s relationship.
Now, before you gag and close your laptop, let me explain. While yes, there are hints of romance in this book, the real reason that I kept reading was this: If Kestrel gets what she wants, it hurts Arin. If Arin gets what he wants, it hurts Kestrel. In a way, it reminded me of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races in that only one character can win the race. And if Sean Kendrick won the race, Kate Connolly would lose. And if Kate won, Sean would lose. I was so curious to see how Marie Rutkoski would juggle the complexities of Kestrel and Arin’s decisions in the book. And I was not disappointed. Kestrel and Arin do not live in a bubble– every decision that either of them makes affects the people around them. They have the power to hurt others and each other, and sometimes they do just that. I’m very curious to see how things resolve later in the series.
The game of wits that Kestrel and Arin play reminds me a lot of the way that Gen and Irene interact in Megan Whalen Turner’s superb Attolia series. Rutkoski employs a strategy similar to Turner’s in that she withholds a lot of information about a character– Arin– from the reader until everything is revealed. And the ride getting to that moment is intriguing. Both Kestrel and Arin are one step ahead of the reader, and it makes it fun to read and guess.
Like I said, there are some weaknesses to this book. But if you’re looking for an emotional ride that will suck you in and leave you in a daze for a few days? Look no further. Arin and Kestrel are engaging characters and the complexities of their world and relationship will keep you on your toes.