“Too Clever to Be Naive”: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

*Edit: This post was meant for February 20th.

Several years ago, I dedicated my blog to love for the month of February. This is back when I blogged every day and didn’t write as many reviews, and by the end of the month I was absolutely sick of romance. Daring to tempt a repeat and happy with the moderate success of Octerror, I dedicate Reading Malone to Aphrodite for the month of February and all the romance it stands for. With that in mind, I’ve selected a subgenre of books to highlight this month—YA Fantasy/Sci-fi Romance.

Teenagers are full of hormones—especially around Valentine’s Day—and I used to find that most of my romantic fantasies were inspired by the books I was reading. The characters and their relationships, while fairly unrealistic at times to be honest, were gateways into an understanding of what I wanted in a soulmate, a long term relationship, and out of life itself. While I was mildly limited with selection back in my day (supernatural romance was pretty much it), teens and YA lovers of today have plenty of choices when it comes to romantic tales.

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a fantasy story with familiar elements that some readers will recognize. Kestrel is the daughter of the Valorian general who conquered and enslaved the Herrani people and she enjoys a life of luxury. When out at the marketplace with her friend, Jess, she finds herself pulled into a slave auction and is surprised when she buys a boy her age. Despite her initial reluctance and shame for what she’s done, Kestrel grows closer and begins a budding friendship with Arin, the mysterious Herrani slave who is intelligent, a skilled blacksmith, and has other talents he’s acquired in the ten years since the Herran War ended.

Valorian society dictates that Kestrel must make a decision on whether she’s going to enlist in the army and fight for the empire or marry and provide heirs. She has an option in her longtime friend, Ronan, but her father’s military training and desire for a powerful father/daughter combo are also on her mind. Faced with a possible uprising and ongoing cultural conflict, Kestrel and Arin have to navigate their friendship, their people, and the possibility of a romantic relationship.

The fantasy world of the Valorian empire isn’t developed much in this first book, but readers will be able to fill in the blank spots with whatever historical knowledge they have of the Grecian and Roman empires. While it doesn’t explicitly describe the world in terms of togas and warfare and the arts, Rutkoski’s writing lends itself toward imagining a Romanesque world with gowns and high teas and war strategy meetings. It’s evident that she did a lot of research on that time period and based her version of slavery upon it rather than on another version. Rutkoski’s world-building is done with a deft hand and there is some beautiful prose throughout the book.

Kestrel is a unique heroine in the YA genre because precedent is given to her intellect rather than her physical attributes. There are only a couple of lines given to describing her beauty, but most of the book and compliments are given to her strategic mind and knowledge. She does have some combat training, but lacks a natural talent for the fighting arts. It’s great to read a heroine who is so genuinely smart and appreciated for it. Arin is a suitable match to Kestrel and I wish there were just a little more backstory than we’re given; I’m sure that there will be more in the sequels. I would say that the pacing, characters, and the consequences are a bit like a YA Game of Thrones with all the cutthroat politics and negotiations, but without the numerous sex scenes. The ups-and-downs of Kestrel and Arin’s relationship makes for a good read, and there’s just enough focus given to the relationship in comparison to the world around it that it works.

Other reviewers have had issues with the portrayal of slavery in The Winner’s Curse and I both agree and disagree with some of those points. I agree, because there could have been more time spent developing Kestrel’s feelings about slavery and how the Valorian/Herrani relationship works. It kind of works because it’s written as an everyday fact of Valorian life, but—at the same time—the audience needs some consolation that the protagonist feels that slavery is bad. It makes Kestrel at times unlikeable when she ignores the facets of her society. The culture that has been created is so interesting and I wish that there was more.

I do think that the pacing is a little unbalanced as it takes its time for much of the first half of the book and can be a little slow at times. Then it picks up and goes at full speed until the end. I wish that more time had been spent in the final quarter of the book, more development for characters and setting and future plot, but what we do have isn’t bad—just quick. My only other nitpick is the racial typecasting that seems to occur between the lines of the book. The Valorian empire is pseudo-European and fair; the Herrani are desert-dwelling and dark-haired. This leads to the assumption that they’re meant to stand in for Middle Eastern people, and—at times—the tone of the book makes this problematic as they’re assumed to be the antagonists rather than underdog protagonists of the series. Perhaps the issue is dealt with in future sequels, but it is mildly distracting in the first book.

I recommend The Winner’s Curse to YA fantasy readers who are looking for a culture based on ancient history, to those who love intelligent, strategically-minded heroines, and for those who can never get enough of the forbidden-love trope. Find a copy today and see if it’s worth the steep price of winning.