Author: Marie Rutkoski
Series: The Winner’s Trilogy, #1
The Valorians are a proud people, gifted in warfare and victors of many battles. A decade after ceasing the land inhabited by the Heranni people as a spoil of war and enslaving the survivors, the Valorians enjoy an affluent lifestyle secured by their military prowess. Kestrel, the daughter of famed General Trajan, has little interest in following in her father’s footsteps despite his insistent urging. When Kestrel makes a rash decision and purchases the unruly slave, Arin, she has no idea how her life will change. Kestrel tries to make sense of the pull she feels toward him, but Arin is no ordinary slave and the secret he carries threatens to shatter Kestrel’s entire world.
“Do you know how to play Bite and Sting?” she asked.
“Either you do or you don’t.”
“Whether I know or don’t doesn’t matter.”
She made an impatient noise. “Because?”
His teeth flashed in the late, shifting light. “Because you would not want to play against me.”
I don’t believe I’ve read a book with a protagonist quite like Kestrel. Surrounded by warriors, she’s expected to wield her own brand of physical competence but actually wields a greater weapon: her quick mind. Incredibly perspicacious, Kestrel is a match for anyone and in most cases much more skilled at understanding a given situation than those around her. Despite this intelligence, Marie Rutkoski still maintains a degree of naivete in her protagonist that is necessary to remind readers that she is still quite young. I cannot praise Kestrel enough for her tenacity and shrewdness, and every page endeared her to me more and more.
I’m a big fan of the slow-burn. Please don’t give me a romance in which the two leads are in love after a few days time, I don’t care how harrowing their ordeal. The progression of Kestrel’s and Arin’s relationship is near perfect, not too rushed and not too prolonged, and it propels us forward into the second half of the book which is quite a ride. Usually in literature we see male characters underestimating female characters. What I enjoyed most about Arin as a characters was his ability to see Kestrel’s strengths and the weight he placed on her intellect. In some ways it’s actually Kestrel that underestimates Arin.
The underlying battle between Valorians and Herrani, between conquerors and slaves, plays a powerful role in The Winner’s Curse. And though there is a strong contrast in social stations, they are in many ways alike. Neither side sees the other as quite human: for the Valorians, the Heranni are property, and for the Heranni, the Valorians are brutes. Both worldviews are dangerous and when the conflict between the two comes to a head, no side really wins.