Confession: when this book first came out with the original cover, I thought it was a book about ballet.
Spoiler alert: this book is not about ballet.
When a new young adult title gets released, two things inevitably happen:
1) a whole swarm of bloggers read the book, talk about how they can't even, you guys!, and rate it five stars.
2) I read the book in question, wonder if I'm in a parallel universe where good books turn into bad books, and rate the book one or two stars.
With THE WINNER'S CURSE, I suffered no reader's remorse. This is pretty much everything I expect from young adult - it deals real issues in an intelligent and sophisticated way without talking down to the audience at all. The heroine is calculating, clever, brilliant- a military strategist who is a champion at her world's equivalent of chess. The hero is dark and dangerous, but not in a contrived way. His backstory is quite sad and heart-wrenching, and he has depth to his behavior that makes him seem less scary and more like an honest-to-god love interest.
THE WINNER'S CURSE is about two societies: the Valorians and the Herrani. The Valorians are fair, militaristic, and obsessed with honor. The Herrani, on the other hand, are artisans and intellectuals, who put a premium on artistry and religion, although they also had a powerful navy. The Valorians were jealous of all that the Herrani had achieved - and so, the Valorians decided to take it, and enslave the very people that they had once held in admiration, reducing them to the status of animals as they took them all as their slaves in the very villas where they once resided.
Kestrel is the daughter of a powerful general in the Valorian army. One day, while in the marketplace with her friend, Jess, she comes to a slave auction by accident. She sees a young, attractive man whose rebellious streak will doom him to a life of beatings. Out of a misguided sense of something, she purchases him - and the decision ends up changing her life in unexpected ways. The slave, Arin, is not all that he seems...and as her relationship to him grows closer, it could mean her doom.
Who doesn't love doom in their romances?
One of the best things about THE WINNER'S CURSE was the complexity of the characters. They are both very suspicious, clever people who are good at getting into the heads of others. Watching them try to read each other and gauge one another's thoughts was like watching a chess match between two skilled chess players. This was really well done, and it was especially refreshing to see a female main character who could keep the male main character on his toes, and even best him on occasion.
Boy, this book ended on the mother of all cliffhangers, though. It seems to be going THE HUNGER GAMES route, and I think I can espy a love triangle on the horizon. Honestly, though - at this point, I'm game. Rutkoski has proved herself worthy. THE WINNER'S CURSE is that rare book in a hundred that actually lives up to the hype.
4.5 out of 5 stars.