Okay, I want to talk about The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, but I actually want to recommend the trilogy it’s part of as a whole. Because the trilogy is brilliant. The books work so well together. So, I’ll only talk about the plot/premise of the first book, to avoid spoilers, but seriously, you should read them all.
Now we’ve got that cleared up…
The Winner’s Curse takes place in the fictional country Herran, ten years after it has been conquered – and its population enslaved – by neighbouring empire Valoria.This setting has some really interesting aspects, with the Valorians living in houses built for the conquered Herrani and absorbing parts of their culture – for example, knives and forks were a Herrani invention, never used by Valorians before the invasion. It sets up a fascinating dynamic I felt was explored extremely well (Rutkoski has mentioned being inspired by the history of Greek slaves in the Roman empire).
The protagonists are Kestrel, the wealthy daughter of the general who led the invasion, and Arin, a slave she buys in the opening scene of the book. Kestrel, despite whose daughter she is, is not an accomplished fighter and doesn’t want to kill. But she has a skill for strategy and for games – she is clever and almost cunning. I had never encountered a character before who was strong in quite the way she is. It also works very well as she and the other characters run careful rings around each other, particularly in the later books. However, there is more to her than that. She is a nuanced, developed character who has more kindness and humanity than most of her fellow Valorians (perhaps as a result of a Herrani childhood nurse, she can see the slaves as people). I liked that her relationship with her father is also really crucial to her character and therefore to the plot, particularly in the later books.
Arin is also a beautifully developed character. He’s a leader, but with a sense of insecurity not often seen in male protagonists in books marketed the way this one is. (By the way, I do take issue with the how gendered this particular cover is. It’s unnecessary and may deprive some readers of the opportunity to enjoy the book). However, the dual narrative which shows us his thoughts is only introduced gradually, so I won’t say too much about him. I’ll just say that I loved both Arin and Kestrel. They are incredibly compelling.
The writing itself is really beautiful, with lots of lovely metaphors and language which you don’t get veeeery often in YA. This did get slightly tedious at times by the third book, but only slightly.There were things in the story that I would have done slightly differently had I been writing it (for example, not the biggest fan of such frequent battle scenes), but that’s not a complaint because the things that were done were usually excellent. And I don’t even wish I’d written it myself, because then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it.
I loved all three books, and it’s been a really long time since I’ve come across a trilogy so well constructed. For example, appropriate tribute was paid to the first book in the second two. (It niggles if things that were important in the first book suddenly don’t matter in the sequels.) A good example of this was how one of the villains of book 1 was referenced in both the others, not just as a piece of the past but as something recent and relevant. Kestrel was still shuddering at the memory.
It’s also rare to find a sequel that’s as good as the first book and enjoyable in its own right to the extant that The Winner’s Crime was, or a trilogy that ends with a satisfying third book (The Winner’s Kiss). It’s often necessary for later books to expand and show us parts of the story’s world not encountered before, and this can be tedious because they’re not the parts that made you fall in love with the story in the first place. But in this case, the new settings were incredibly enjoyable and compelling in their own right. New characters were also skilfully introduced, which can be tricky for the same reasons. By the time I was reading the third book, I really loved the characters (one in particular) introduced in the second.
So there you go. What could you possibly be waiting for? Off you go to get these books. 🙂 x