Book one of The Winner's Trilogy
By Marie Rutkoski
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR (Macmillan)
I was under the impression that THE WINNER'S CURSE was almost entirely about the romance between Kestrel and Arin. I was wrong. Their love for each other drives many of their decisions, but THE WINNER'S CURSE is about much more than two teenagers in love.
Kestrel is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a general, and thus a high-ranking Valorian. She must marry or enlist in the army by the time she is twenty, but until them she is determined to find her own path. Things go a bit awry when she stumbles across a slave auction and makes an impulsive purchase of a young Herrani man. You see, Kestrel lives in the Herrani peninsula, where the Herrani where enslaved after the Valorians took over. The Herrani are obviously unhappy about this, which Kestrel is a bit blind to, despite her strategic mind. She is uncomfortable with slavery, however; initially she ignores that she bought a person. Then she starts using Arin as her escort, for single Valerian women must be escorted and she trusts him to let her do what she wants.
I didn't always buy that Kestrel and Arin fell in love (she owns him!), but I loved the complicated dance between them. Arin has his own motives and his own clever mind. Kestrel is terrific at getting out of tricky situations using her powers of observation and intelligence. Despite my crack at her strategic mind before, THE WINNER'S CURSE is not a case of being told about a character's skills. Kestrel shows her abilities over, and over. Thus, THE WINNER'S CURSE is about two capable, crafty survivors who are unwilling to let their people be the one's thrown over the bus.
I wasn't familiar with the term before this, but "the winner's curse" is an auction term referring to win the winner pays too much for what they receive. Kestrel invokes it when she buys Arin. And, as the story goes on, it seems that one of them will have to invoke it again, to save either their love or their country. Author Marie Rutkoski is not afraid of making things complicated.
I devoured THE WINNER'S CURSE in a single afternoon, and the unexpected ending has me eager to read the next book. The romance between Arin and Kestrel might be a slow burn, but the story is fast paced and thrilling. Notably, Rutkoski makes both sides sympathetic to the reader. The characters are sometimes vile and sometimes charming, no matter which side they're on. Killing people always has weight. But slavery is always bad, thankfully. Man, I just have to know how things turn out.