Goodreads: The Winner’s Curse
Series: The Winner’s Trilogy #1
Published: March 2014
Daughter of a famed Valorian general, seventeen-year-old Kestrel can either join the military or marry, but all she really wants is to make music. All her plans crumble, however, the day she goes to the market and buys a slave. Soon Kestrel has lost her heart and no longer knows where her true duty lies.
I read The Winner’s Curse after seeing a glowing review, but the experience only made me recall why I have recently gravitated away from books marketed as YA. The premise promises suspense, action, intrigue, and romance, but the characters and relationships fall so neatly into the expected types and patterns that I had difficulty investing myself in the story at all. In addition, the plot development makes little sense, glossing over what I would have foreseen as difficult circumstances, all to get the protagonists together. Though the story picks up toward the end, the focus on romance rather than on political intrigue or military action causes the book as a whole to fall flat.
I admit that some of my disappointment in The Winner’s Curse stems from my own reading preferences–I do not enjoy many straightforward romances, preferring instead relationships that develop naturally within a larger plot line. Ostensibly, The Winner’s Curse has that plot line. Social unrest grows on the Haran Peninsula where the Herrani slaves plot to rise against their Valorian masters. But all that excitement really feels like nothing more than fuel to fire the romance of Kestrel and her new slave Arin. What, the books seems to ask, could be steamier than a high-class girl falling in love with her muscly and mysterious slave? How will social unrest and the boundaries it draws work to keep them apart? No matter that lives are at stake here–when will they kiss?!
Indeed, the plot really seems to revolve around ways to turn up the heat on this romance. Marie Rutkoski wants it to simmer, so she does not allow Kestrel and Arin to admit their feelings to each other too soon. She even throws in another guy to complete the by now expected love triangle. But, really, the two are goners for each other almost since the time they first meet. That mutual attraction means that Kestrel allows her slave a completely unbelievable amount of autonomy, granting him freedom to roam the house, giving him leave to visit town whenever he desires, inviting him to secret trysts so they can talk and play games, and encouraging him to speak his mind to her at all times. She even allows him to contradict and insult her in front of her friends. I found it hard to believe a high society girl would go so far, but even harder to believe that her friends and family let her.
Of course, people begin to talk about the true nature of the relationship between the beautiful girl and her handsome and favored escort, leading to more ridiculous drama. To start, Kestrel cannot believe that anyone would start such a rumor–and it is not because she is young and innocent, because she certainly likes to talk about the exploits of the rest of the town. This is from a girl whose name can barely appear in print without a comment afterwards remarking on her unusual intelligence and talent for strategy. Smart girl that she is, she reacts to the rumors in a way that can only appear to confirm them. At which point one begins to wonder how long it is possible to cheer on someone who seems absolutely determined to self-destruct.
Bored with a romance that felt overly contrived and cliche, and that featured a couple who have little chemistry, I plowed on through the rest of the book to discover that the final pages are the best of the book. New complications arise that seem as if they really could deliver drama, if only Kestrel and Arin realize that their romance is possibly not the most important thing happening in the world right now. Those last pages saved the trilogy for me. When the sequel comes out, I just might read it.