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. Quoted from Goodreads
Despite the cover, which is deceptively YA historical fiction/romance, this book is a fantasy. Yes, the main character is seventeen and she does wear pretty dresses. There also is a fantastic romance and forbidden love. But. This story is so much more than the cover suggests. It's political intrigue, betrayal, strategy, war, rebellion, deception, murder, espionage, manipulation, escape, leadership, coming of age . . . the list goes on. Oh, and there's romance, dancing, and star-crossed lovers.
Are you convinced already, because you should be. Told in alternating POV, Kestral and Arin are both complex, compelling characters that are faced with impossible decisions. This is the sort of book that breaks your heart while simultaneously forcing you to cheer for the characters and their actions.
Kestral is strong in a non-traditional sense. While women joining the military is accepted and even expected and despite Kestral's father pushing her in that direction, fighting isn't where her strength lies, and it so easily could have been. Instead, she's a brilliant strategist and could easily become one of the greatest generals in the empire if she wanted to. In the end, that, and a mutual love of music, is what draws her to Arin, who can match her move for move, battle for battle. I love smart, complex characters, and these two are everything I could have asked for with no danger of ever drifting into Mary Sue/Gary Stu land. Plus, they're on opposite sides of just about everything their lives stand for. You get two sides in a war, and while you do believe that one has more of the right of things, nothing is black and white and both characters are easy to sympathize with.
I love the worldbuiling in this book. You can feel the empire stretching across countries and examine the differences between the different cultures, all without feeling like the author ever just dumped pages of exposition. Everything is shown, artfully slipped into the story to flesh out the setting. It walks the line between fantasy and historical fiction without really falling into either category, which heightens it's unique feel.
To be honest, this book does remind me a little of General Winston's Daughter by Sharon Shinn, but I adored this one so much more. If you're only going to read one book this month, I would probably have to choose this as the winner. Of course that might be a tragedy, since there are a whole slew of amazing books out this week alone, but this one is probably the best in my opinion. Oh and the title, The Winner's Curse, it is absolutely perfect. At first it stands for something rather small, but then it encapsulates the entire book brilliantly. This is a gorgeous 5 stars for me. I love, love, loved this book and am absolutely dying for the next one.