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9780374384678 The Winners CurseThe Winner’s Curse, Marie Rutkoski
Macmillan, March 2014
Reviewed from final copy

Not gonna lie. I loved this book. I loved from the pretty dress cover — I know! But I’m a sucker — to the thoroughly unexpected world. I loved the lack of easy answers and the fact that there is more to come. I loved Kestrel’s brilliance and her stupidity, and Arin’s conflicting desires for freedom and to be a good man, in a world where both are not an option. So much love, really.

But my love does not literary merit confer, sadly, so let’s see if there’s a case to be made.

It’s worth noting that I’m not alone in my love — three starred reviews and an average of slightly more than 4 stars on Goodreads has me in good company. And there’s a lot here to admire and respect as well as love. So enough squee, and on with the thinking.

Language, theme, and character are where this one shines.

World building is where it falters, and I’m still deciding how much that should matter.

There’s an almost stilted quality to the narrative. Sentences are short, seemingly straightforward but actually playing hide and seek with complexity; a lot is said without words, and it takes significant skill to do this kind of showing without actually showing anything in some scenes, or by only giving the actions without pandering to the reader by describing emotions or thoughts in too much detail — a skill that is critical in a narrative where the characters are often untruthful with themselves. Occasionally the language soars — a fire “chittered”, Ronan “slunk against” a couch, a nonstandard use of slinking but one that gives a sense of his gracefulness and his slight tendency towards smarm. Late in the book, Kestrel winds through a room. Another author would have her walk, or pace, but Rutkoski has a flair for words that describe more with less.

(I’m not going to straight up compare this to Hemingway, but there’s a whiff of that almost terse prose and economy of language, although the subject is so wildly different that the effect is also transformed.)

Thematically, too, there is much to chew on: this is a tale of the aftermath of war, and then of war again, of the ways people are changed and the way cultures and customs clash against each other. Kestrel’s accustomed and often thoughtless privilege combined with her ambivalence and even discomfort are rendered in her every action and in the things she says and the things she doesn’t say. Her growing attraction to Arin seems almost inevitable; she has been raised in a Herrani house, by a Herrani nurse — of course a handsome young man with a similarly privileged background would attract her, and of course her love for things that the Valorian’s consider soft but the Herrani value plus her anger at her father would attract her to the forbidden. It’s the opposite of the insta-love so often decried in YA; it might not even be love, but it’s a complex, fragile, destructive relationship that comes across as completely true to Kestrel’s character.

(Arin? I’m not sure. What does it mean to be a slave after a war, to be a rebel? Does his attraction to Kestrel happen because she’s worth attraction? Or because she symbolizes the freedom he desires, the power he misses? If there’s a flaw in the characterization, it’s that Arin isn’t as knowable as Kestrel, and some of that is the character but some of it is the writing of the sections in his perspective.)

Funny, I started talking about theme but landed on character. I think it’s because the depth of the story is in the conflicts the characters face within themselves. (The conflict between them is just plot and swoon-fodder.)

Have I convinced you that this one has legs yet? I’ve nearly convinced myself, but then there’s that pesky world building.

It’s not terrible, and there are some details that are great. But the ancient world–Regency mashup has me constructing histories that get us to this point, and it doesn’t add up; if the Valorians are all military might (marriage or military by age 20 is mandated), where do all these sparkly dresses and parties and flirtations fit? If they are so without culture of their own (which is an oft repeated truism; the Herrani have all the medicine, poetry, and music), how do they have, for lack of another word, so much culture? (And if they are all about war, how have they not figured out medicine, or at least kidnapped Herrani doctors and learned from them, already?) Why did the Herrani surrender to slavery? These were countries with relationships and trade; how did that become conquest so quickly? Some of this is addressed but not with enough depth to make it make sense, and some of it is ignored. None of it bothered me on the first read, but on the second go I found myself with a LOT of questions.

And did I mention first in a series? Some of my questions might be addressed down the line, but I’m only looking at this book.

I’ve still got my scales tipping back and forth. My gut says it doesn’t have a chance, but there’s some strong stuff here that rivals the top of the crop. Or am I just blinded by love, much like Kestrel, who pushes aside her qualms and suspicions because she’s got all those tumultuous feelings getting in her way?

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