Book Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

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.

Rating:

F

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

Very seldom do I give a failing grade to books that I’ve read from cover to cover. Usually I reserve such a low rating for ones with such abominable writing, such shallow, one-dimensional characters, such poorly constructed plots, that I can’t bear to finish them.

The writing in this is good. Sure, it’s not the kind of prose that sweeps the reader up and transports them fully within the pages, but it gets the job done. The characters are not one-dimensional. In fact, throughout the first half of the book, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the slow revelations of their depths. The plot is there too; star crossed lovers, a power-hungry empire, a slave rebellion.

What’s not to like? As you can no doubt tell by glancing at the length of this review, a lot.

Consider this a one-star of protest. I take issue with the main theme in this book, slavery, and how poorly it was handled.

Let me give you some background so that you might understand how negatively this impacted me. My father, at heart, is a historian. He knows more about the local history of the area I grew up in than any other person alive. This is not a boast, it is a simple fact.

He’s spent the last twenty years gobbling up every firsthand account of the Algonquian tribes and the horrors visited on them that he can find. He knows the names of the fur trappers that used to trade with them, of the soldiers that massacred them, of the Jesuit priest who doffed his robes and donned a set of hides as he fought alongside them. He knows the lives and deaths of countless European settlers. He’s spoken to their descendants. He owns their cast-iron cookware. He’s rowed thirteen miles up the nearly impassable river they lived on in an exact replica of the type of small boat that (irregularly) delivered the goods their lives depended upon. Why? To see what it was like.

Yeah, I grew up with that…

From an early age, he impressed upon me that the only way to truly learn about history was to ignore everything my schoolbooks taught me, and instead read firsthand accounts and piece together what happened for myself, instead of blindly believing the glorified tales of the victors.

When I was in middle school, we studied the Civil War, and my father pressed a thick, threadbare, vellum-wrapped book in my hands entitled Twenty-Two Years a Slave, Forty Years a Free Man by Austin Steward. It was the first of the many auto-biographies I read written by former slaves and abolitionists.

I will never forget what I found within their pages. And because of that, I will never be able to turn a blind eye when this subject is poorly handled.

Kestrel, the female lead in this book, is the daughter of a general who conquered a people for his empire. Not because said people were threatening theirs, not because they posed some danger to the world at large, but because of greed. The Herrani had what the empire wanted, and so they took it, slaughtering, raping and enslaving the populace along the way.

These atrocities are barely mentioned. One of the few accounts we’re given is a vague reference to the male lead’s sister being raped, because, and I quote, she was “too beautiful for her own good”. I’m not even going to touch that one, because it would turn this review into a goddamn thesis paper.

In the beginning of the book, we’re led to believe that Kestrel is different from her conquering father. We find her at a slave market, with a friend who shrugs off the auction they’re about to witness. We’re given this tidbit,

“…the girl’s shrug reminded Kestrel that there were certain things they couldn’t discuss.”

In context, you’re led to believe that this is because they don’t see eye to eye on slavery. She proves this to be true, by buying a slave. Oh wait, no, that doesn’t prove that she’s different, does it? In fact, it implies she’s of the same mindset; that it’s okay to BUY AND SELL HUMAN BEINGS AS IF THEY ARE CATTLE.

*deep breath*

But there’s still a chance that she bought him with good intentions. That she plans to immediately free him. Har. Nope, she bought him because,

“The stony set of the slaves shoulder’s reminded her of herself…”

Yuuuup. You see, Kestrel is a self-centered asshole. She also doesn’t give a single fuck that her father helped to subjugate an entire race of people. She doesn’t give a single fuck that they wait on her hand and foot, and that she doesn’t even know how to light a goddamn fire on her own. Sure, every now and then she feels a pang of some undefined feeling radiating from the vestigial part of her brain where emotions like sympathy, empathy, and HUMAN FUCKING DECENCY emanate from, but she’s able to brush them off and ignore them.

Don’t believe me? How about this gem, where the slave she bought informs her that the room they’re sitting in isn’t being used how it was meant to be,

“I know,” he said, “because of this room’s position in your suite, the cream color of the walls, and the paintings of swans. This was where a Herrani lady would pen her letters or write journal entries. It’s a private room. I shouldn’t be allowed inside.”
“Well,” said Kestrel, uncomfortable, “it is no longer what it was.”

What a sociopathic remark. What a callous slap in the face. It no longer is what it is because she took it for her own and enslaved those who once lived within it. This is one of over a dozen examples I could have used here, by the way.

I’m sure that someone will argue with me that Kestrel isdifferent, because she freed a slave. Yes, she freed a single slave, Enai. This woman took up the mantel of caretaker when Kestrel’s mother died, and stepped in to fill her absence.

Let’s not forget that Enai didn’t have a choice in the matter, because SHE WAS A SLAVE. Want to know what happened to Enai’s family during the invasion? Want to know if she had a husband? Children? Grandchildren? Can’t tell you, because Kestrel, the selfish asshole, never bothered asking.

Oh, but she loves Enai. And according to Kestrel, Enai loves her. Because apparently there’s such a thing as consensual love when one of the people is being/has been systematically subjugated by the other. How can you be free to love if you’re not FREE?

And I have to point out the glaringly obvious here; Enai is filling the role of “the magical person”. The exact skin color of the Herrani is never really defined within this book, but we’re given to believe that they are the opposites of the Valorians who rule over them, dark-skinned where they are white, dark-haired where they are fair. If Enai were further described as black, she would be the definition of “the magical negro”. It was Touré who said “Magical negroes exist so that the knowledge and spirit that comes from blackness can enlighten or redeem whites who are lost or broken.”

Enai is only included in the story in two capacities, when Kestrel is broken or lost, and when Enai dies. She later (ONE MIGHT SAY MAGICALLY) appears to Kestrel in a dream during a crucial part of the story, when Kestrel most needs bolstering, and provides her with a tale from the Herrani people that gives Kestrel the strength she so desperately needs to carry on.

She is nothing but a stereotype, an overused plot device that needs to die a horrific death. She’s included in the story to give reason to Kestrel’s implied difference from her peers. Because apparently you need a close bond with a slave to understand HOW FUCKING WRONG IT IS.

*deep breath*

Every single other slave except for Enai and Arin, the man Kestrel bought at the auction, remains faceless and nameless. So don’t try to tell me that this chick is different, not when I’m forced to bear witness to scenes like this one:

“You asked me to be honest with you. Do you think I have been?”
She remembered his harsh words during the storm. “Yes.”
“Can I not ask the same thing of you?”
The answer was no, no slave could ask anything of her.”

Let’s talk about those slaves, shall we? Why is it, when slavery is one of the main themes of this book, that the brutality of it is only hinted at? Why do we only see the scar-covered torso of Arin, and don’t hear the tales of how he earned them? Why do we only here vague whispers of punishments but never seen them carried through?

This book skirts everything that could be considered unsavory. It makes a mockery of the barbarous degradation, the soul-crushing dehumanization that these people face on a daily basis. Instead, every single Valorian you meet is basically a stand-up character when it comes to slaves. You never seen a Valorian lift a hand to one. You never even see them threaten one.

And I have a theory about why. If you saw the Valorians for what they were, you would hate them, and that would take away from the climax of this book. You see, the slaves revolt, and this book paints them as the bad guys because it’s told from Kestrel’s point of view.

This is the point where I get really, REALLY angry. It’s not enough that the atrocities they face on a daily basis are glossed over. It’s not enough that they are the ones who have had their culture annihilated, a large chunk of their populace murdered, a large chunk of their female populace raped, and that those with the misfortune of living are now enslaved, but you want to paint them as the villains for RISING UP AGAINST THEIR OPPRESSORS?

No, fuck no.

This is where the book completely lost me. Up until this point, I had held out a small glimmer that Kestrel might have a revelation, that when she was captured and forced to do a single degrading act, that she would understand what the Herrani had faced on a daily basis. She does not. Instead, she labels the man forcing her to *gasp* wash his feet as a monster. And she vows vengeance. With ZERO grasp of the irony.

That’s right. How dare he. Doesn’t he know his place? Why doesn’t he just be a good little slave and go back to washing HER feet.

Near the 85% mark, something astonishing happens; in a single sentence, she finally regrets slavery. Yup. For no reason. She doesn’t have a revelation, she doesn’t learn a goddamn thing, just thinks,

“It didn’t matter that Arin’s cause was just, or that Kestrel now allowed herself to see that.”

And then she moves the fuck on. Because even though she’s “allowed herself” to see that slavery is a Bad Thing, she’s not going to do a goddamn thing to help, because she could never fight her own father. In fact, she plans to escape and alert the Valorian army (which is away slaughtering and subjugating another people). Oh, and yeah, she knows that this will lead to the wholesale genocide of the Herrani, but thems the brakes.

Fuck you, Kestrel. Seriously, I hope you slowly burn to death in the second book.

FYI, she never, not once, voices aloud that slavery is bad. That her father is bad. That the empire is an evil, power-hungry demon sucking the life from (what’s left of) the free world.

I could literally write another two thousand words about my issues with how this was handled, but as I’ve already written two thousand words, I’ll spare you from that. You’re welcome. Just be warned that if you come on this review trolling me, I took a LOT of notes and highlighted entire passages to back up the arguments I make here.

In short, this book is nothing but a typical YA love story. It is completely lacking in any depth beyond that. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I almost never read YA anymore, because while yes, I know this is “just fiction”, I can’t seem to turn my brain off enough to accept that fact.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

  1. I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I like your review of The Winner’s Curse since I saw it on GR. I’d read it and loved it, 5 stars & all. I was bugged by Kestrel’s inconsistency , but I’ll admit that I let the whole ‘barely addressing slavery’ issue slide in favor of the main story. I mean, FICTIONAL conquerors and FICTIONAL slaves. Not AMERICA’s shameful past, right?

    As it turns out, no. You wrote such a thought provoking review. I grew up in Sandy, Utah. We weren’t affluent by any means, but there was almost zero racial diversity. There was ONE black student in my middle school. I didn’t ever witness racial prejudice, he was very popular. My mom grew up in Stockton, California. While she taught me that the N word was akin to the F word and that all colors are beautiful, it wasn’t the same as what your history buff dad instilled in you. I’m still learning and appreciate this kind of sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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