I don’t really recall when or where I found these books, but I decided I wanted to read them partially based on the gorgeous covers, and partially because I saw them get generally very positive reviews on Tumblr. I went into them knowing very little, only that the main character was called Kestrel and that they were YA fantasy books. I didn’t even know what The Winner’s Curse was, so I was pretty much going in blind. Reading blurbs isn’t a strength of mine, apparently – not if there’s a pretty dress on the cover!
The Winner’s Trilogy – The Winner’s Curse, The Winner’s Crime, and The Winner’s Kiss, all written by Marie Rutkoski – follow the story of Kestrel, daughter of a general in an empire that reveres war, who chafes against the expectations of her. Finding a kindred spirit one day in a slave she bought on impulse, Kestrel is drawn into a deadly game of political and romantic intrigue, where the stakes are higher than she ever thought possible, and the choices she faces are often between losing her heart and her head.
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love…
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.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Winner’s Trilogy. It’s densely plotted, with a fair amount of political intrigue and a sweeping, but not instantaneous, love story with two very sympathetic characters. Arin and Kestrel come from very different circumstances and have both a lot to learn and a lot to lose from each other. I was caught up in their story, and the story of their world, from the Valorian obsession with war and honour to the sweeping world depicted in The Winner’s Kiss, with work camps in the frozen north and war, flat-out war, for the freedom of those enslaved.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from The Winner’s Trilogy, but what I got was extremely good. It’s far more than just pretty girls falling in love and wearing nice dresses (although there is some of that). It’s rich and complex, and the characters are believable and sympathetic and loveable, and I was rooting for everyone, even as they went to war against each other. How does that work? I don’t really know. But I seemed to be doing it nonetheless.
I had two main complaints about these books. The first was that one of the characters was called Ronan. I know that’s a ridiculous complaint. But I started reading the first of the trilogy while I was in my boyfriend Ronan’s flat, and was far more invested in the fate of fictional Ronan than I should have been. I wanted more Ronan in the books. I wanted good things to happen to Ronan. I am an idiot, I freely admit that.
My second complaint, and I don’t know how much of a complaint it really is, is that this is a fantasy book with absolutely no magic in it. It’s about political intrigue and military might, about human connection and romance and love, and familial ties and duty to one’s country, but there is not a single shred of magic. Certainly not in the first book. It’s a little more debatable as you get further in. Now I have no issue with books with no magic in them. I’m perfectly happy to read books which are political, historical, dramatical, liturgical… Okay, okay, too many -cals. My point is that when I see a book marked ‘fantasy’, I expect there to be some form of magic in it. Dragons, maybe. Elves. Orcs. Goblins. Spellcasting. Snow-summoning abilities. An unnaturally pointed ear and a sharp, killing canine. There was nothing of this in The Winner’s Trilogy.
So my complaint, really, is that there’s no genre which is ‘totally different world, imaginary, but not magical in the least’. I really feel like that’s a different kind of book to a fantasy book, whether high fantasy or low fantasy. I went into this book expecting something very different to what I got, and while what I got was excellent, I just don’t see how it can be classed as a high fantasy, even though it is, since it’s not set on earth or in our society, etc etc. It’s something I find quite frustrating.
But nonetheless. Despite being disappointed by the lack of spellcasting in The Winner’s Trilogy, I was still left with a very strong trilogy of books, a complex and intriguing main character, a romance which was satisfying without being twee, and a world that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring.
The Winner’s Curse
The Winner’s Crime
The Winner’s Kiss