Sunday 30 April 2017

The Winner's Curse, Marie Rutkoski

He knew the law of such things: people in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark
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. 

* * .5
2.5 / 5 

The Winner's Curse was much better than I had feared, but still managed to do virtually nothing for the first 250+ pages. When the action finally starts, it is fast paced and exciting, but before that we are subjected to Kestrel whinging about her life, playing piano, and going to lots of parties whilst Arin either mopes or sneaks around. The series does show potential, however, and I was particularly pleased with how it ended.

The premise is simple: Kestrel is a high-born Valorian, the warlike race that has conquered the Herrani people, lady whose father is a prestigious general who demands that she either enlist in the military or take a husband. Arin is the slave that she impulsively purchases whilst at a slave auction with her friend Jess. He interests her because he can supposedly sing, can ride, seems well "cultured", and speaks excellent Valorian. She begins to, quite slowly, develop feelings for him. I am firmly and absolutely of the opinion that master/slave romances can never be consensual, which is why I approached this book cautiously and expecting to be disgusted (which is why I borrowed it from the library rather than buying it).

Thankfully, this book, despite being advertised as a romance has very little of that. Kestrel has a sudden "feelings revelation" approximately 5 pages before she and Arin kiss, which is literally one page before he is no longer a slave. Then there is one more kiss where their positions are somewhat reversed; I won't elaborate due to spoilers, but there is virtually no romancing whilst Arin is a slave and Kestrel never has him whipped or anything of the sort. This is not at all like Captive Prince. 

This does not dispute the fact that slavery is disgustingly immoral. It is perfectly fine to incorporate slavery into your book, but it must be criticised. Unfortunately, Kestrel is a moron who has never had a critical thought in her life. Her father is a warlord and her people refer to the Herrani as savages, despite the fact that they were perfectly sophisticated in their own way. The problem with Kestrel is that she sympathises with individuals, she frees her childhood nurse because she has done her a service and feels sympathy for Arin, mostly because he's hot and nice to her, but at no point does she go slavery, yeah, that's a bad thing. Instead, it falls to Arin to do all the critical work. Rutkoski does criticise slavery and she uses Arin to make a lot of perfectly valid points:

"You own me. How can you believe that I will tell you the truth? Why would I? We are not friends."
"You loved her [Kestrel's slave nurse] because she did anything you wanted. She could never love you. If she did, it was because she had no choice"

When I read the above quote it became obvious that, unless the author had zero self-awareness, that she wouldn't write some sort sordid "sexy" master/slave plot. But the whole dynamic still feels a bit gross and nowhere near critical enough. Kestrel accuses Arin of betrayal, of harming her people without once considering the years of enslavement he has lived through because of her people. That perhaps the Valorians deserve to be ousted. 

the god of lies loves you, Kestrel 

This is a shame because Kestrel as a character had a lot going for her. We don't often get to see unashamedly selfish female characters, or ones that are strategists rather than fist-fighters. Kestrel self-professes her uselessness with any sort of physical weapon and the text actually follows through with this, she is genuinely terrible at fighting. So she thinks instead, but yet is completely devoid of critical thought about society! She impressed me a lot more in the last 100 pages, having finally stopped going to parties and being indecisive, but she is still infuriatingly dense. Arin also struck me as remarkably foolish - if I was enslaved and the means to my freedom was within my grasp, I wouldn't, neither could I conceive of any real person, throwing that away for someone, let alone one of my oppressors. He's also fairly bland for the first chunk but slowly grew on me. 

What is really good is Rutkoski's writing. It's beautifully fluid and she has a lovely way of writing that just perfectly illustrated scenes for me. In fact, her writing is so delightful she managed to disguise the fact that absolutely nothing was happening! I was flicking through the pages going huh, this is surprisingly decent, before reflecting on it and realising that all that had happened were some horse rides and dress shopping. But her writing is seriously nice. Unfortunately the world building is very generic - an emperor with an expanding militaristic empire, a renaissance-type setting, and a city so bland I can't even recall what it was called. The novel is always in third person yet switches perspective every so often between Arin and Kestrel. Mostly this is done well, but I was rather disturbed when the first chapter from Arin's perspective just referred to him as the slave. Presumably the point was to show that Kestrel didn't even ask his name and society didn't view him as an individual, but combined with the fact that Kestrel didn't seem to have a problem with slavery, it came across quite badly.

Kestrel's cruel calculation appalled her

I was impressed with where the book was going at the end. There's good military strategy, Arin and Kestrel are both showing some mild competency, and Kestrel does at one point comment that she thinks Arin's cause is a good one. She also finally makes a decision and sticks to it. Hopefully the next book will continue at that quick pace.

Overall, the whole slave premise was criticised within the novel, but nowhere near enough by Kestrel, and the romance thankfully plays a very small role within the novel. Unfortunately, not much happens for ages and hopefully this will be remedied in the next book. 

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