The Winner’s Curse
Spoiler Rating: High
I mean, come on; a conquered people overthrowing their conquerors? Forbidden love between a conqueror-girl and a slave-boy? A book cover featuring a pretty woman geared for daintily opening letters at prom while clearly in the throes of either physical pleasure or a massive headache? What’s not to love?
Having just finished reading The Winner’s Curse, let me tell you now: there’s quite a bit not to love.
But by god I’m holding out hope for the rest of the trilogy.
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love . . .
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 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.
The plot, in brief: (First 324 pages) Valorian gentlewoman Kestrel, who has grown up on the Valorian-colonized peninsula of Herran, impulse-buys a human being, Herrani gentleman-turned-slave Arin. They’re just getting to the smooching stage of their relationship when Arin and his fellow Herrani rebels poison most of the Valorian colonizers and take Kestrel hostage, thus ending their romance. She twiddles her thumbs in captivity for a hundred pages or so until Something Rage-Inducing salvages her relationship with Arin.
(Last 30 pages) But smooching him is too traitorous for Kestrel’s conscience. She escapes to tell the Valorian emperor that his Herrani slaves have revolted, but begs him not to exterminate them for their insolence. Emperor graciously agrees to establish a suzerain/tributary relationship with the Herrani people, on the condition that Kestrel marry his son and heir (whom she’s never met). She agrees; the Herrani are granted both citizenship into the empire and governorship of their homeland, and Arin (whose faith in Kestrel’s moral character is shaken by her apparent power-hungriness) cries a solitary tear at the news of Kestrel’s imperial engagement.
Kestrel — the well-bred daughter of the famous Valorian general who conquered and enslaved the Herran peninsula some ten years ago. She’s a poor fighter, but has the makings of a brilliant strategist. Alas, she’s super disinterested in both joining the military and getting married (the only two options available to Valorian citizens), and she shows a scandalous interest in both music and treating her Herrani slaves (almost) like human beings.
Arin — a Herrani slave whose (noble) family was slaughtered in the Valorian conquest ten years ago, when he was . . . nine? Ish? Trained as a blacksmith and farrier, but his true passion lies in music and overthrowing the Valorian government.
Jess and Ronan — siblings, respectable Valorians, and Kestrel’s closest friends. Jess fills the sweet-but-invisible-best-friend role for the book, while Ronan does the sweet-romantic-interest-who-gets-rejected thing.
Cheat — a Herrani man who plays slave auctioneer by day and leader of the Herrani resistance by night. A cruel, petty, jealous, short-sighted brute.
Well, I’m a sucker for stories about conquered peoples/nations overthrowing (or beginning to overthrow) their conquerors. I think I can trace my suckerhood back to elementary school and Winter of Fire, which is one of those life-changing books that destroyed me in all the best ways as a kid. So two thumbs up for the premise of The Winner’s Curse.
Also neat: Kestrel’s strength is her mind, despite her father’s attempt to make her an elite (or at least competent) fighter. Women who can fight well are awesome, but the fantasy genre’s saturated with them; Kestrel’s disinterest in fighting felt rather novel.
But, uh. That’s about it.
Bland Writing Style
The writing quality wavered, to say the least. There were some gorgeously written bits here and there, but most of the book was bland, with occasional dips into straight-up bad.
So “glass doors burned with light” is pretty vivid; I love that she “dappled a few high notes over the troubled sound”; and the last sentence was one of the most powerful sentence in the book. But the rest of it is all yawns.
Descriptions of characters’ emotions were generally all right (if bland), but frequently collapsed into the pit of Telling, Not Showing–as we see when Arin learns Kestrel’s attending a dinner party hosted by the villainous Lord Irex:
How does she intuit that the set of Arin’s mouth is determined rather than, say, displeased, angry, annoyed, grumpy, or any of the dozen other emotions that would be likely in this situation? What is it about him that reads as protective? What does protective even look like?
(“Look protective,” I commanded Husband. He gamely cycled through several expressions, without clear success.)
It’s tantalizingly easy to write “There was something about him that looked protective” and be done–but those halfhearted descriptions are agonizingly boring to read. They provide little to no direction for the movies (plays? BBC television series?) I mentally turn books into as I read them.
For my birthday, someone please get me more authors who bother to craft clever, nuanced, imaginative descriptions.
Lack of World-Building
There is an appalling lack of world-building going on here. We’re told:
- the Valorian empire is vast and warlike,
- Valorian society includes an emperor, a massive army, an unknown number of senators (some/many/all of whom twiddle their thumbs in villas far from the Valorian capital, and don’t appear to do anything remotely senate-like), and a noble class that consists of at least one Lord (who wants to become a senator because, uh, reasons),
- the Herrani people live on a peninsula,
- the Herrani once had a wealthy culture focused on arts and stuff, traded overseas with their fancy-pants ships, and were ruled by a monarchy,
- the Valorians blasted through the mountains separating the Herran peninsula from the Valorian empire, overran the Herrani city, and conquered it,
- there’s now a Valorian governor ruling the Herran peninsula, and the Herrani people are enslaved,
- there’s explosive “black powder” which is used in cannons (both on land and at sea), but no hand-held guns,
- there are pianos and violins, as well as printed-and-bound books available in many different languages that families collect in private libraries,
- the Valorian capital is three days’ sailing from the Herrani city,
- and there are “barbarians” causing trouble on the Valorian’s eastern border, somewhere.
Things we are not told include (but are definitely not limited to):
- the name of the Herrani city where the story takes place,
- the physical geography (including size, shape, environment, climate, etc) of the Herran peninsula (where, again, the story takes place),
- the human geography (including any details about culture, population size, demographics, economy, urban/suburban/rural development and spread, etc) of the Herran peninsula,
- anything at all about how the Herrani people now live,
- the name of the Valorian capital city,
- anything at all about Valorian culture, economics, and politics (beyond “they’re not into art” and “they’re big into war”).
We’re not even given enough information about the clothing styles, cuisine, or architecture to paint a half-decent picture of the setting. I mean, sure, the finest Herrani architecture involves marble floors and glass doors and painted ceilings, but that’s as informative as telling us the Valorian women wear silk dresses: not informative enough.
As frustrating as it is to have no clear image of the setting and culture, I was doubly upset about the lack of information regarding the Herrani war, and the Herrani way of life. The book’s plot revolves around a conquered people’s uprising against their conquerors–so shouldn’t we first be shown, in careful detail, how devastating the war was, and how mistreated the Herrani people are now?
But no. We’re told a few times, mostly in passing, that the war was bloody. We’re told in passing that a Valorian’s house slaves now live in communal building somewhere on the property rather than in the Valorian’s house. We’re told in passing that a Valorian can grant their slaves freedom, but it almost never happens. We’re told in passing there’s a market in the city where Herrani slaves (and the very rare free Herrani) sell goods. We’re told in passing that a Herrani who tries to cheat or steal from a Valorian will be whipped.
Arin’s the only Herrani whose life we see in any detail, and his life is exceptional: his mistress is an eccentric Valorian who allows him special freedoms, asks his opinion about things, plays games with him for fun, wants to know him as a person, cares about his well-being. Sure, it’s mentioned (in passing) that he has scars from his hard labor and past whippings, but that’s not enough to provide a vivid portrait of how difficult Herrani life is under the Valorians.
If you want me to be emotionally invested in an uprising, you have to do better than “They’re slaves, and everyone knows slavery is awful, and hey by the way this enslaved young man is super handsome.”
Yes, slavery is beyond awful. But the book didn’t bother trying to show more than a hint of that awfulness, and the story suffered for it.
Here’s my understanding of Kestrel’s attraction to Arin:
First, Kestrel bought Arin because she was drawn to his strength and quiet rebelliousness on the auction block.
Second, Kestrel’s mind is blown when Arin furiously denies Jess’s claim that the Herrani god of lies must love Kestrel, since Kestrel has such an uncanny ability to discern the hidden truth in things:
The revelation that people might be too afraid to correct her (a Valorian, and daughter of the famous general) if she accuses them of lying has a significant effect:
She’s so shaken that she later asks that Arin always tell her the truth:
But why does she want to know how he truly sees things? Why is his honesty valuable to her? He’s just a brooding hulk of a blacksmith who glowers at her whenever they’re within line of sight. I don’t understand her motivation for this agreement, and it’s the entire foundation of their relationship.
As for Arin’s attraction to Kestrel, I don’t even know. Sure, she plays the piano and he’s a huge fan of music. Sure, she grants him special freedoms and treats him almost like a human being. Sure, he can empathize with the fact that she feels trapped in her situation: forced to either marry or enter the military, and hating both options. But what else? Anything?
But they fall in love because the book wants them to, I guess, until the Herrani rebellion successfully kills most of the Valorians and imprison the rest. Kestrel’s taken hostage by Arin, and she regrets every kind thought she ever had about him.
Until, that is, a certain Something Rage-Inducing happens (don’t worry, I’ll get there), after which Kestrel and Arin’s seemingly doomed romance is saved–and then Arin undergoes a stunning personality shift, from hulking-brooding-angry dude to hopeful-gentle-sweet loverboy, who eagerly runs up the stairs two at time to see his beloved that much sooner, and jokes with her while they bake pastries, and poetically asks her (his hostage, mind you) to live with him forever:
I don’t know who this Arin is, but he definitely isn’t the same Arin who lurked resentfully throughout the first three hundred pages of the book.
There’s something to be said for a YA heroine who isn’t immediately badass in the face of horrifying adversity (such as seeing her people slaughtered and herself taken hostage by a slave uprising)–but Kestrel’s brand of badasslessness had me in despair.
We’re specifically told that Kestrel’s a poor physical fighter; her strength is in her keen observation and deduction skills, her ability to strategize. Her mind is her weapon.
Yet she makes some unbelievably dumb decisions, such as telling her strong-and-brooding Herrani slave that the entire Valorian regiment is leaving the Herran peninsula, thus leaving the place defended only by the city guard until the new occupying force arrives from the Valorian capital.
And when she’s not being an idiot, she spends most of her time intentionally putting her mind (her primary/only weapon!) on mute, and thus disarming herself:
(Hey Kestrel. You’re probably still a prisoner because you aren’t doing anything about it.)
Is it believable that a young woman in her position might be inclined to try to ignore her problems, let her eyes glaze over and let time pass? Of course. But it makes for an infuriating heroine and an unspeakably dull book. I’d have liked at least a little more emotion in her, more spirit, more action.
Here’s hoping this is part of her character arc across the trilogy–that she makes herself powerless in the first book, realizes the danger of doing so in the second book, and attains true power in the third book. That could make the slog through this first book worthwhile.
Arin’s Character Development
Kestrel spends the book being passive, but Arin’s struggling with the burdens of enslavement, falling in love with the young woman who purchased him, and planning a rebellion.
And it’d make for fascinating reading–if we saw more of the story from his point of view.
We know almost nothing about Arin as a person, except that (a) he’s impertinent and brooding, (b) his family was wealthy before the Valorians came along, at which point he was trained to be a blacksmith, and (c) he loves music.
Arin could’ve been a deep and fascinating character, but we’re shown so little of him and his inner struggles (other than “I want her but she’s Valorian, angst”) that he falls quite flat.
Time to put my favorite rage socks on. Ashers, you should probably put yours on, too.
In the Characters section of this letter, I told you about Cheat, the leader of the Herrani rebellion. He serves no purpose in the story except to (a) be a brutal and incompetent leader for Arin to eventually replace, and (b) salvage Arin and Kestrel’s seemingly unsalvageable romance.
Kestrel and Arin’s romance is heading straight to smoochville when the rebellion kills almost every Valorian in the city and Arin claims Kestrel as his war prize (to prevent her from joining the piles of Valorian dead). Kestrel immediately realizes that Arin’s at the heart of this rebellion, and she’s sickened by him and by herself–her blindness to his suspicious behavior, her deep attachment to him. Nothing, it seems, can repair the damage done to their romance.
Until Cheat tries to rape Kestrel.
And Arin arrives just in time to save her.
Because rape is a great plot device to use when you need your estranged hero and heroine to reestablish their emotional bond. The best, even.
(That odor you’re smelling is my laptop melting in the face of my fury.)
Whyyyy does it have to be rape? Why does our powerless, passive, captive heroine have to almost be raped for the book’s romance to get back on track? Why couldn’t the author have chosen any other way?
I’m just going to link, once again, to Maggie Stiefvater’s brief rant about the use of rape in literature. And now I’m going to remove my rage socks, breathe, and continue to my final complaint. Which is:
Some Silly Plot Issues
I get the feeling that the author is interested in politics, but isn’t precisely an expert on the topic. Or perhaps she merely assumes her readership won’t notice when political and military things get a little silly in her book.
The most notable silliness comes at the very end of the book, when Kestrel tries to convince the Valorian emperor to grant the Herrani people citizenship into the empire, and allow them to govern themselves. The emperor informs her that doing so would piss off the Valorian senators who live in Herran; Kestrel says paying the senators handsomely might soothe their ruffled feathers:
- Why does this emperor, whose military already seems feverishly devoted to him and the empire, have to rely on marrying his son to a general’s daughter to “make the military love [him]”? We’ve seen nothing to suggest that his grasp on the military’s loyalty is anything but absolute.
- Why does he need to “distract the senators and their families” with an invitation to a wedding? What threat would the senators pose to him or the empire if he gives governorship of the Herran peninsula to the Herrani, and lavishes the Valorian senators with gold to assuage their hurt pride? How would a wedding satisfy them, if gold can’t?
Also, Valorian society is bursting with gossip about how Kestrel–the eccentric, almost-outcast daughter of the Number One Awesome general who conquered the Herran peninsula–has taken a Herrani slave as her lover and risked her life (and her family’s honor) in a duel to protect him from being whipped for stealing from evil Lord Irex. Even the emperor has heard the rumors, and seems to believe them, as he implies when she initially resists the idea of marrying his son:
Why would he choose her as the future empress?
The emperor’s reasons for forcing Kestrel’s engagement to his son feel flimsy at best. I wish the author had taken the time to show discord and fractured loyalties among the military and senators (not to mention explain what the senators even do, why they exist), to make this decision more realistic (and therefore powerful to me as a reader). Maybe this will come in the sequel?
Kestrel agrees to the engagement, and for some reason (*headdesk*) is allowed to hand-deliver the emperor’s written offer to Arin. She decides to keep the emperor’s ultimatum (“Marry my son or the Herrani will be obliterated”) a secret, and instead tell Arin that she got engaged to the prince because, hell, who wouldn’t want to be empress? Arin feels betrayed by her eagerness to marry someone else, but ultimately agrees to swear fealty to the emperor and become the Herrani governor.
Two issues here.
First of all: why is the leader of the Herrani rebellion (which, remember, killed almost every Valorian on the peninsula) allowed to not only live, but become the Herrani governor? Why didn’t the emperor declare Arin’s execution (or at least imprisonment) part of the agreement, and choose someone less dangerous as the new governor? Placing him as the Herrani leader is the dumbest and most unrealistic decision the emperor could have possibly made.
Authors, stop making your characters unbelievably dumb for the sake of plot. How many times do I have to say this?
Second of all: Arin accepts the emperor’s offer, but with a condition:
Once again I say, uh, what?
The emperor is giving him two options: 1) accept the offer, or 2) see the Herrani civilization exterminated.
Who does Arin think he is, accepting the offer only on the condition that Kestrel is the sole emissary between the Herrani and the imperial court? What power does he have to negotiate? And why does Kestrel say she thinks the emperor would be cool with that condition?
Guys. The emperor believes Kestrel and Arin are lovers. The emperor suspects Kestrel’s loyalties lie with the Herrani people, not the Valorians. The emperor has arranged for Kestrel to marry his son and heir; she’s going to become empress.
Who on earth could possibly believe the emperor would allow Kestrel to have anything to do with Herran, much less act as its sole emissary? And with Arin as its governor?
I swear, if she actually is placed as the emissary in either the second or third book in this trilogy, I’ll cry. I will cry, and it will be ugly.
I have so much more to say, but I’m giving up. Go read Lizzie’s excellent review now; she covers (more succinctly and elegantly than I could) several other noteworthy points of criticism.
But hey, maybe the sequel will be better? Here’s hoping. It’s lurking on my nightstand now, watching me as I type.