Before The Winner’s Curse, I’ve never received a bound galley for review before, though I’d seen them in other people’s book hauls. Obviously, I’m grateful, because it does make me feel very special to have the book so far in advance, even despite the fact that bound galleys have HUGE font and are a bit unwieldy to actually read. Anyway, I know this review is ages in advance, but I’m of the mind that they wouldn’t give the books out if they didn’t want people to read them; I mean, bound galleys are useless as decoration. Macmillan will be pushing The Winner’s Curse really hard come winter 2014, and I can see why. Rutkoski’s prose is beautiful, her characters nuanced, and her world sophisticated.
The Valorians rule over the Herrani, having absorbed that country into their vast empire. Though once the Herrani considered the Valorians savages, the Herrani now must serve the Valorians as slaves. Racial tensions are central to The Winner’s Curse. Rutkoski humanizes both sides equally, and handles the subject so well. Into this background, Rutkoski places two star-crossed lovers, because what does fiction like more than forbidden love. The daughter of the Valorian general falls in love with her Herrani slave, who is a rebel no less. Predictable in concept, yes, but Rutkoski does wonderful things with it.
Lady Kestrel, our heroine, is a delight. She’s strong in that way that has very little to do with physical strength; in fact, her like of talent with weapons is a bit of a disappointment to her father, the general. However, Kestrel is possessed instead with something better: cleverness and strategy. In Valorian society, she has two choices now that she’s coming of age: to wed or to enter the military (women are respected as strong in this fantasy world – praise Hera!). Kestrel wants to do neither, and dreams of having the freedom to play her piano, musical talents not being respected by the practical-minded, militaristic Valorians. I admire Kestrel so much her ability to make difficult decisions and to plot her way out of corners. She’s feisty and wonderful. I also really love that she’s less apt to throw her life away for the sake of their romance than Arin is; men are not the more emotional party in fictional relationships enough.
The romance, though I was expecting it, sort of caught me off guard. The characters didn’t spend all that much time together and the feelings emerged as if from nowhere, though I certainly would not call this instalove or anything of that sort. The romantic arc is more like one might find in a classic, given the difference in social class and role between Arin and Kestrel. In those sorts of times, the opportunity for actual courting is limited and it’s the small moments that add up into an affection. At first I wasn’t really sure about them as a couple, but there are some really sweet moments that sold me on it in the end.
The plot consists of rebellion, duels, balls, and battles. Rutkoski’s plotting is fabulous, keeping me on my toes, never completely certain what would happen next. She does not shy away from hurting her characters or killing them off either. Plus, Rutkoski manages to start the story strong, building character and world at the same time, without the infodump slump that so often plagues the beginning of fantasy novels. Other than those facts, I want to leave you unspoiled to enjoy everything totally fresh, because the not knowing is part of the fun.
Speaking of the end, Rutkoski is fiendish and I love it. She wraps up the plot of this book neatly, while leaving loads of space for the next book in the series. There’s no cliffhanger or anything of that sort. Instead, she ends with a punch write to the feels. I love when authors do that, especially in YA, where it’s so rare to find a book that doesn’t end in an HEA.
What Left Me Wanting More:
I feel like the romance could have been better-developed. It came a little out of left field, without really building up that slow burn.
The Final Verdict:
The real downside of reading an awesome book like this early? The sequel will not come out for a year and a half at least. What have I done to myself? Friends, if you adore fantasy as much as I do, you’ll want to be putting this on your TBR pile.