Review: The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Series: The Winner's Trilogy
Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Reading Level: Young Adult
Pages: 368 (Bound Manuscript)
Source: Borrowed from a Friend
In the tradition of Kristin Cashore and Cassandra Clare comes this brilliant, unputdownable, star-crossed romance about the curse of winning.

Seventeen-year-old Kestrel is an aristocratic citizen of Valoria, a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers. Here, a girl like Kestrel has two choices: join the military or get married. Despite her skills in military strategy, Kestrel’s real passion is music.Which is why she feels compelled to buy Arin, a slave with a talent for singing, at auction. It’s not long before she finds herself falling in love with Arin, and he seems to feel the same for her. But Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for Arin is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a new world, The Winner’s Curse is a story of wicked rumors, dirty secrets, and games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.
~*~Lili's Reflections~*~

This is one of those rare moments where I am struck speechless. I have absolutely no idea where I could possibly begin this review because this book was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. It took all of my expectations and blew them out of the water. Rutkoski brought me a world where slaves are the norm, honor is life, and the ability to fight is valued above all. This admittedly scary and unique world fascinated me, and the promise of more to come has me shaking with anxiety and want.

As terrible as it is, a mere seventy or so pages in I found myself trying to figure out the last book that I read where slavery was simply the way of life. And, in all honesty, I couldn't think of a book immediately that had such casual slavery in it. While I hope such a thing will never come to the real world, this fantasy world had me eager with anticipation because of this nasty twist. It's new, something unique and admittedly scary. It's disturbing in all the right ways and kept me flipping the pages simply because it was different. Rutkoski took this book places that I haven't seen any young adult literature take me before, and for that I love her even more.

The overall concept of the empire fascinated me because I am such a history nerd. Think of the Mongols--the brutal race that once conquered so much territory that they were the leaders of the largest empire in history. This comparison is nothing compared to the land that the Valorians have conquered. The Valorians are courageous fighters that have taken over most of the known world and enslave the original inhabitants of all lands they now claim as their own. Assimilation and fairness is not even an option in their minds the way it was for the Mongols. Instead, they wreak havoc wherever they go. An individual makes a name for themselves due to their acts of valor, so you can only imagine how important it is to every Valoria to not only know how to fight, but to prove themselves in battle.'s rather obvious in the best possible way, no?

Kestrel, our main character, has a wonderful brain. She is not only a brilliant strategist, but one smart cookie in everyday life as well. While she is not the strongest fighter, she protects her reputation as the daughter of Valoria's most revered General. She was a refreshing main character because, while heroic and admittedly kickass, most of her strength came from her extreme intelligence instead of brawn. While she has her general fighting skills down pat, her intelligence is what drives her in life or death situations. It was great to come across a heroine who knows how to defend herself with something other than easily picked up defensive maneuvers. She's got a good head on her shoulders and I really hope we can see more characters like her in the future. She embodies the type of young adult heroine that I love to read about, and she's very easy to connect to and love because of this.

And then there's Arin. I have to admit that he has a beautiful name, very lyrical. He's a slave that Kestrel bought at the market after feeling a strange connection to him because of his ability to sing. Her piano playing is the only thing that connects her to her deceased mother, but society frowns upon such a skill when she should focus on training for the military or be out searching for a husband. She has no other choice--marry or fight. But she couldn't help to indulge her love of music by hiring him. However, she quickly learns that her impulsive buy may not have been the proper decision. Arin has many skills that the average Herrani slave does not have, including an understanding of her language and a mind so sharp it can rival hers. She can't help but be drawn to the enigma that he represents, but such a thing may cost her. Winning is a curse, after all.

This book went in directions I never would have thought, which kept me on the edge of my seat. And throughout all of these twists and turns and life-or-death situations, there was Arin and Kestrel. What initially started as an odd friendship stemming from fascination quickly evolved into a forbidden romantic interest in a time of chaos. Both had to resist acting upon such impulses, which made their relationship progress at a satisfactory pace while the constant tension in the book was so palpable I could cut it with a knife. Watching the two of them interact was great. I connected with them both for different reasons, but mostly because they were both such passionate individuals that believed the causes they were fighting for were undoubtedly right. However, it came to a point that these characters connected so much that I couldn't connect with either of them. They were on the same page so much so that they could understand what the other was thinking by observing their movements. Obviously, as a reader, I can't do that. So while these observations made their connection stronger, at times it made my connection with them weaker. I couldn't fully grasp their emotions because there wasn't really any explanation or detail behind the emotions in such instances.

All in all, a very solid read with a few minor connection bumps along the way. The chemistry, the world-building, and the beautiful writing and attention to detail left me breathless. The way that the scenes flowed so lyrically, almost as beautifully as Rutkoski's description of the importance of music, kept me flipping the pages at a rapid speed. And my genuine curiosity and love for everything about this story made it absolutely unputdownable. The wait until book two is going to be a long and terrible journey, but the promises of what is to come makes it so, so worth it. This series cannot be ignored!

 4.5 stars



  1. I've seen this cover floating around, but I didn't stop to read the blurb. Everything you've talked about - the world-building, the relationship that blooms between Kestrel and Arin and all the plot twists - sound like things I would really enjoy! Definitely adding this one on Goodreads :)

    1. This makes me happy! I hope you love it even half as much as I did!