The Winner's Curse
By Marie Rutkowski
Published by Bloomsbury
Nothing can stop the all-powerful Valorian army. It has conquered the once-proud Herrani, turning them into slaves. But underground rebels are plotting to overthrow the Valorian Empire. The moment to rise against their oppressors grows ever closer.
As a Valorian general's daughter, 17-year-old Kestrel has two choices as to how to spend the rest of her life. She can join the military and become a dedicated soldier like her father, or she can get married and strengthen the Valorian Empire by producing children. But Kestrel is strong-willed, and has other ideas about what she wants from life.
The Winner's Curse wastes no time in setting up the relationship at the centre of the novel, and it's disappointingly predictable. Kestrel is wandering through the slave market with her best friend, Jess, when she is drawn to a young male slave; there is something in his eyes that she recognises.
Kestrel buys the slave, paying well above the asking price. Gossip spreads quickly through Valorian high society: why has she bought this particular slave? Does she have an ulterior motive?
Kestrel is drawn to Arin's powerful personality, and soon begins to favour him over the other slaves. Tensions begin to rise in the general's household. But Arin's own plans are far more important than these petty jealousies.
Soon Kestrel struggles to hide her growing love for Arin. The cunning slave sees this, and begins to use it to his own advantage. Arin is a spy for a group of Herrani rebels, and is now very well placed.
As the relationship between Kestrel and Arin evolves from mistress and slave into something very dangerous, Arin seizes every opportunity to get his hands on information that will be useful for the rebels. Kestrel soon discovers that the price she has paid for Arin is much higher than she could possibly have imagined.
New Yorker Marie Rutkoski's unfussy storytelling, elegant prose and solid characters make The Winner's Curse a gripping read for fans of this type of tale. But there is nothing really new in this story of deadly game playing.
Rutkoski concludes her novel on a cliffhanger that will frustrate readers. Kestrel and Arin's story deserves to be tied up much more neatly than this. Of course a sequel has been promised, but there must be more honest ways to persuade readers to buy the second book than leaving them hanging in the air.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com