Winning what you want may cost you everything you love
As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.
One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.
But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.
Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.
If I gave this book a rating strictly based on my enjoyment of the novel it would be closer to 3 stars. Unfortunately, I think I had a bad case of The Reader’s Curse while reading The Winner’s Curse.
I read TWC about a week after reading Tsarina by J.Nell Patrick. These books have the same bones. I couldn’t help myself from comparing them while reading TWC. I decided to call my conundrum The Reader’s Curse– when you’ve read so many books that you can’t help but flip through your mental rolodex and compare all the other books you’ve read with the same structure. When I read two novels with my favorite set up/archetypes so close together, I can’t help but think about how the other author presented the story differently and if I liked it better.
The Winner’s Curse is a beautifully written novel and it put me to sleep on more than one occasion. It lulled me to a dreamy place with its lyrical syntax and intoxicating prose. I couldn’t help but doze off under the velvety blanket of such rich composition. I felt like the author was using every writerly trick in the book in every paragraph. I usually keep a few pieces of paper handy to mark pages in books when I come across something beautifully stated or profound. With TWC, I ran out of paper. I found myself wanting to bookmark every other page. While I can appreciate such dreamy word crafting, it distracted me from the story itself. Exceptional sentences/thoughts lose their impact when they are the only sentences written. It’s like a piece of costume jewelry that’s been worn one too many times; it eventually loses it’s shine. I like variety in my paragraphs. I want to stumble upon a sentence or a scene saturated with brilliance after a desert of nice and normal prose, and feel the satisfaction of finding a diamond in the rough. There was just no rhythmic push-pull-and release so to speak. It was like everything was the same volume. The same note. Too much of a good thing eventually turns sour. But those are just my feelings on the matter. Some people are of a sturdier stock and can handle sentence after amazing sentence hitting them in the face like a sack of sand.
I’m not good with the abstract. I wish this stunningly formatted book would have come with a glossary. I could sense that TWC was supposed to be a Historical Fantasy but I couldn’t get a firm mental grasp on the world that TWC was built in. I felt like I had just stepped out of the Tardis with The Doctor into a strange, new dimension without the rest of the episode to discover my surroundings. I needed a frame of reference or an idea of what year the story was set in. Were the characters dressed in Victorian style clothing but living in the stone age or the future? Were the town and buildings reminiscent of the Wild West, the Swiss Alps, or The Shire? I don’t know because none of it was clearly defined.
I still don’t know if I liked Kestrel, the female protagonist. She was defiant and clever, qualities I can appreciate, but she felt undeserving of the male MC’s love to me. I thought I would really connect with Kestrel because of her piano playing but there was more counterpoint going on than harmonizing between us. She had a nice quirk about gambling and throwing daggers better than most, but I just never found a moment where I was really rooting for her character. I felt neutral about her living or dying. There was no hook to her- nothing about her character that latched itself on to me. Ultimately, I felt like she was forgettable.
Arin came off as an attractive male MC. I liked him far better than Kestrel. He was quiet, intelligent, and calculating but not beyond compassion. He’s Kestrel’s ”slave boy” so any feelings between them are forbidden. Feelings manage to blossom anyway and Arin is aware of this before Kestrel. The attraction between Kestrel and Arin really didn’t qualify as a slow burn romance for me. When the two kiss in the story, I felt as if it were out of nowhere. There wasn’t enough simmering between them in my opinion. I felt more chemistry between Kestrel and a secondary character, Ronan, than I did with the two main characters.
The last fourth of this book was monumentally better than the first three-fourths. It picked up in pace and intrigue. I enjoyed the plot of the story and the Tosca style turn of events at the end but the pacing seemed SO SLOW during the first half that I considered putting it aside. It was difficult to stay interested for more than ten pages at a time. The beginning and middle of this book were like slack piano strings- there was no tension or anticipation. It’s obvious that the author meant this story to have a plot that stealthily progressed and than BAM!, but it missed the mark for me. I didn’t get that satisfaction from it. Maybe my expectations were set too high for this book.
The Winner’s Curse served as a learning tool for me. I discovered more about what I like in a book and what kind of reader I am. I don’t like things to be left to the imagination. I like clearly defined story worlds and I need a point of reference.
Now that I’ve unloaded all of my negative thoughts about The Winner’s Curse, I will tell you why I gave it 3.5 stars instead of 3. Despite my stylistic turn-offs with the manuscript, the author did what she set out to do. She crafted a high-caliber (on the verge of pretentious) novel and left me angry and frustrated at the end. If I’m angry and frustrated at the end and curious about how things will turn out, then a writer is at least halfway doing their job . It’s obvious that Marie Rutkoski is a beyond talented author and a very successful English teacher. I think there are more people than not that will enjoy and fall in love with this book and her writing, I just wasn’t one of them.
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