Friday, February 7, 2014

The Winner's Curse

The feel of this young adult novel is very different than a lot of young adult novels I read. It's not really historical fiction, but it's historical influence is obvious. It's like an alternate world, but it's also not fantasy.

In The Winner's Curse, by Marie Rutkoski, Kestrel is Valorian aristrocracy. Her father is a top-ranking army General, and as is the case with every Valorian woman, Kestrel must either join the army or marry. She has a keen mind, but she's not a very good fighter. She prefers to play music. But neither is she too thrilled about the other option. On a whim, she purchases a slave for far too much money, unsure why she does it except that her father could use an excellent blacksmith and the auctioneer says the man can sing. Though she's paid too much, Kestrel cannot imagine the true cost of what she's done. It's the winner's curse.

Although this book is fully fiction, it feels like something straight out of Rome, and the author even admits the influence from that time period. The Valorians are a proud warrior people who conquered a race that was much less savage and more artistic, adopting some of its customs and enslaving its people. But a slave has pride too, as Kestrel discovers. It's only a matter of time before the conquered arise to throw off their oppressors. You really get the sense that this society is as ill and fat and debauched as Rome grew to be, but from Kestrel's vantage point, we don't see the worst of it. No graphic scenes. No sex scenes, and the main characters are moral.

Kestrel, despite being who she is and growing up in the culture she does, is happily not brainwashed by the aristocracy around her. She doesn't lord it over anyone. She's compassionate. When her motives are called into question, she questions herself and isn't naive to the fact that she might be wrong. As a reader, you appreciate her stance on slavery among other things, but you can't help but wonder a bit how she got there. Readers can chalk it up to a difference in personality, perhaps, but she does seem to be the only one in her circle of acquaintances who wants to buck the system. There's not much set-up for it, but it's easy enough to accept, once you get past the part where she outrageously outbids everyone else for a slave. Explanation is given for why this happens, and it works well enough to patch up the logic holes.

(Minor SPOILERS this paragraph) The romance is rather strange, bordering on something like Stockholm Syndrome. It's not really a surprise that Kestrel falls in love with the slave, but it builds slowly, at least, and doesn't feel forced. Later on in the book, there's a reversal in their relationship, and that's when it really begins to have Stockholm Syndrome vibes. Yet the romance itself is almost lost amidst the political turmoil of the rest of the book. That's not to say it's all politics. The book alternates between Kestrel's and Arin's points of view and pretty much stays in their heads, so you don't see more of the world than they see. But for being romantic interests, they don't spend a great deal of time obsessing over each other. I'm not sure whether that is refreshing or a sign of something lacking in the book. The story is clearly supposed to be a romance, but the characters barely spend enough time together to qualify. In future books, I hope the romance develops a little more depth and plausibility.

The book has a surprising end I wasn't expecting. It's dramatic and heartbreaking and promises an entertaining future for this series. Despite its flaws, I really did enjoy reading this non-stereotypical YA novel. Three and a half stars.

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