The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski (2014)

“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.”

winnerscurseThe Herrani have been conquered and subjugated by a vast militaristic empire. Though the narrative attempts to paint seventeen-year-old Kestrel with a different brush, she is no different than her people. She is a slave owner and her life proceeds comfortably. Her father is a general – wealthy and well respected. He spends much of his time attempting to convince Kestrel (who has a clever mind for military strategy) to join the army. According to the rules of her society, at the age of twenty-one, Kestrel must either marry or join the military, though she cares little for either option. She wants only to play her piano.

Enter Arin, a slave who is bought by Kestrel at an auction. Arin is fierce and defiant. He’s skilled and clearly has musical talent. Kestrel is predictably intrigued. Arin comes to admire her. But he has his own agenda…

As some reviewers have pointed out, the writing is good and individual scenes are enthralling, but the overall picture is rather tame (slavery is candied and the book’s reality suffers greatly from it), the heroine is less clever in her reasoning than her brilliant deductions would have us believe, and Kestrel is hardly likable (does she feel strongly about anything other than her piano?). She’s a flip-flopper to boot, unable to make up her mind about her friends and her feelings toward them.

Fans of Kristin Kashore and Leigh Bardugo will enjoy this fluff (though it doesn’t quiet belong in the same field) and those who enjoy better, like Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, will want to steer clear.

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