Double Reviews! As both books are by the same author — and the newest publication is out next week — I felt it necessary to condense the two posts into one. The first section is for the first book, a review for those who haven’t read it; the second section is for the second book, a review for those who can’t wait to read it. If you’ve read the first book or both, I would love to discuss it with you in the comments!
The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Published: March 2014
Genre: young adult, fantasy
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.
Kestrel is trapped in a life where she must either marry or join the military. Neither option is appealing. She’s trained in the art of war, and an excellent gambler, but she’d much rather sit at her piano all day. One afternoon at the market changes not only her world but the small portion of the Valorian empire her father, the general, occupies. In one moment, she finds herself in the middle of winning a bid in an auction for a Herrani slave. Little does she know, the slave, Arin, is a spy, and is ready to begin a revolution. But fate has other plans for these two, each one step away in a gamble of crumbling to pieces.
I was completely uninterested in this book during all the hype last year. But after several nudges from Morgan — “It’s based on Greco-Roman history!” — I gave in. And now I’m ashamed I waited so long!
This isn’t historical fiction, yet it kind of is. It feels like a part of our own classic history. I couldn’t help but imagine Greece and Italy as the backdrop. Except for the names of the people (Valorian and Herrani) and their customs and culture, there’s nothing else in here that screams stereotypical fantasy, either. No magic, no creatures, no superpowers — just raw human emotion driven by the roles of master and slave, caught in a whirlwind of gambles and revolutions.
Kestrel was a breath of fresh air. She’s a mediocre warrior, though in no rush to show this to the public. She’s an excellent gambler, quick and intelligent, though she only reveals this while playing society games. Her musical talent, though not appreciated by her society, is phenomenal. This is what drew her to Arin in the first place: the auctioneer claimed he had a beautiful voice (and he does). What makes Kestrel so unique is that this is entirely an introspective novel, both in Kestrel’s (third person) point of view and Arin’s (third person). They’re very intelligent, noting all the potential outcomes of a move and predicting future moves from their opponents. It’s a political game, and it kept me on my toes. Rutkoski brilliantly crafted this novel to make it suspenseful, intriguing, and entertaining.
“My soul is yours,” he said. “You know that it is.”
I loved the complexity of Kestrel and Arin’s relationship — or non-relationship, rather. Kestrel is the master, though she struggles with the concept of owning a human. Years ago she freed her Herrani nurse, Enai. Purchasing Arin is a source of inner conflict for Kestrel. She becomes fascinated with him, and forges something akin to friendship. Arin, likewise, is a spy and wants what’s best for his people, but he’s drawn to Kestrel and struggles to keep her out of the plot. He wants to avenge the Herrani, but not if it means harming Kestrel. They save one another, they fight for one another, and yet by doing so their rescues are complicated by the love for their own people and the purpose on their respective side of the fight.
Layers upon layers of plot and warfare techniques and emotion and loyalty! Kestrel and Arin love one another, but this could also be a strange master-and-slave relationship. It’s fantasy, but it’s based on historical events and texts. It’s political and strategic, but it’s far more mental than physical.
I can’t describe it. Just read it. Yes.
The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Publishing Date: March 3
Genre: young adult, fantasy
The engagement of Lady Kestrel to Valoria’s crown prince means one celebration after another. But to Kestrel it means living in a cage of her own making. As the wedding approaches, she aches to tell Arin the truth about her engagement…if she could only trust him. Yet can she even trust herself? For—unknown to Arin—Kestrel is becoming a skilled practitioner of deceit: an anonymous spy passing information to Herran, and close to uncovering a shocking secret.
As Arin enlists dangerous allies in the struggle to keep his country’s freedom, he can’t fight the suspicion that Kestrel knows more than she shows. In the end, it might not be a dagger in the dark that cuts him open, but the truth. And when that happens, Kestrel and Arin learn just how much their crimes will cost them.
Kestrel and Arin have buried themselves in a sea of deception. Arin knows Kestrel isn’t being completely honest with him about her engagement and the treaty he signed — but how could she trust him when he, too, has lied to her? As Kestrel’s wedding approaches, she takes charge of working within the palace walls to discover the emperor’s true intentions, to find a balance of love for her father and Valoria, and love for Arin. Arin, too, seeks dangerous allies with the help of a spy in Kestrel’s court. Just as they feel they’ve learned the truth, the struggle to maintain a dam of secrecy nearly bursts, with deathly consequences.
“. . . We both know what it means to lie for the right reasons.”*
First, the plot was more complex, more intricate, and yet much tighter than the first book. This is a blessing, because things really do become even more complicated. It seemed the only truthful person in the entire book was poor Prince Verex, and even then his lies were simply the omission of truth. If Rutkoski added any sort of flowery romance, any additional encounters between Arin and Kestrel, this would have dragged. The plotting (of the book and of all the schemes with Arin, Kestrel, and the emperor) was wonderfully packaged, and I’m glad Rutkoski included what she did and no more.
“Marry him,” Arin said, “but be mine in secret.”*
Second, the romantic element was even more heartbreaking. Arin is obsessed with figuring out why Kestrel is engaged when she’d originally had no interest in marriage. He wants to know what he’s done wrong. He throws himself at her, and she’s cold to him. She has to be. Watching that happen — her pain mixed with his sudden humiliation — was just…stomp on my heart why don’t you! But then he makes discoveries, and she makes discoveries, and they try to tell each other about these discoveries, but then there’s misunderstandings, and there’s heartbreak everywhere. GAH! Like Lindsey, I just wanted, for once, for them to tell each other the truth and laugh and smile with true happiness and “smoosh their faces together.” But alas. This is not that kind of love.
“I believe that the land I won was for you. You are my fate.”*
There’s another sort of love going on here too. Very small, singular moments of father-daughter affection appeared in the first book. Call it love, call it respect — they were the other’s world. Well, the plot thickens for Kestrel and her father as he continues his work for the empire and she’s trapped behind silks and jewels. This relationship — the one that was meant to be the most honest and pure in Kestrel’s life — is strained and muddied.
An emotion clamped down on her heart. It squeezed her into a terrible silence.
But he said nothing after that, only her name, as if her name were not a name but
a question. Or perhaps that wasn’t how he had said it, and she was wrong, and
she’d heard a question simply because the sound of him speaking her name made
her wish that she were his answer.*
This book will give you all the feels. And none of them will be particularly happy. All the happy feels will be from imaginary scenarios, and remembering that will only make you sob. All the politics will intrigue you and anger you. The stolen moments are filled with love and coded with deceit. And once you think some progress will be made, that happiness is just around the corner, Rutkoski snatches it away from you and crushes your dreams. I loved every second of it (even when I wanted to throw this across the room).
Thank you, Edelweiss, for providing this book from FSG for review!
*Quotes taken from uncorrected proof.