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Book Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Kestrel is an aristocrat, the daughter of the Valorian general. She wants to pursue a love of music, but her father wants her to follow in his footsteps. Soon she must choose: join the military or get married.

One day she is out in the city where she finds herself bidding on a slave.  She wins the auction, but this is where she learns about the winner’s curse. The Winner’s Curse is a true life concept that sometimes, at first, it looks like you have won an auction or economic windfall, but in the long run it ends up costing you more than you bargained for. In this case, winning the slave Arin at auction will cost Kestrel more than she can ever imagine.

The land that the Valorians currently occupy used to belong to the Herrani. The Valorians may be good warriors, but the Herrani are playing the long game, plotting and scheming to take back what is rightfully theirs.

Arin is a Herrani. Once himself an aristrocrat, he is now a slave. A blacksmith. When he is taken in service to Kestrel, the two of them begin to feel drawn to each other in what can only be described as a truly star-crossed relationship. That attraction may cost them both everything.

You have probably seen a lot of gushing online about this book. It is justly earned. The prose in this book is exquisite. Here are some fine examples:

“How much easier everything would be if that were so. But Kestrel wouldn’t let herself consider the truth. She didn’t want to know its shape or see its face.” 

“Isn’t that what stories do, make real things fake, and fake things real?”  

And the growing romance between Kestrel and Arin is truly beautiful, full of romantic tension, stolen glances, and that slow simmering boil that can happen when two people are drawn to each other but can’t really be together. Their conflict is clear, pulling them apart time and time again. And it is so beautifully complicated because you can clearly see how if they were who they were truly meant to be, they would make a natural pair. But instead, they are adversaries from warring nations, master and servant. This is by no means an example of a healthy relationship, but it is a fascinating exploration of war, socio-economic class, and the belief that we often hold that one group of people is somehow better and more worthy than another.

The Winner’s Curse does that truly remarkable thing that science fiction and fantasy does so well; it makes us think of current real world problems – in this case racism and classism – by putting them in a fantasy setting. It’s like Jesus speaking to his disciples in parables, as you see the injustice unfold in this story you can’t help but to consider our real world history. I love the profound hypocrisy that is displayed as one group is called savages and murderers for doing the same exact thing that another group feels entitled and justified in doing.

In the end, Kestrel and Arin are forced to make a lot of personal sacrifices and difficult decisions. How it all plays out is very fascinating. Both Kestrel and Arin are strong, well developed characters. Tucked away neatly inside is an example of a strong female friendship.

Even though this is fantasy, it actually has a lot of resemblance to Downton Abbey and I would put this on a If You Like, Try This display. Romance, war, deception . . . there is a  lot of good stuff in here making this a very compelling read. And as I mentioned, the prose is just stunningly beautiful. Highly recommended.

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