Kestrel is the daughter of General Trajan, the Valorian general who conquered the Herran peninsula and enslaved its people. She leads a comfortable, even pampered life in the subjugated Herrani capital. Her real love is music, but with her eighteenth birthday approaching, she will soon be forced to choose between enlisting in the army or marrying. In the first chapter of the novel, Kestrel finds herself purchasing a young male Herrani slave named Arin, who comes advertised as a blacksmith as well as a singer of some talent…
One of the signs you’re reading a good—or at least interesting—book is that you can’t wait to discuss it with friends. So it went with The Winner’s Curse, a promising new YA novel by Marie Rutkoski. I ended up reading it at more or less the same time as fellow Tor.com reviewer and all-round excellent critic Liz Bourke. In the process, we started chatting about it in great detail, and after a while we decided it would make more sense to turn this into a collaborative review of sorts.
So, here we go.
STEFAN: Taking a look at the main character first: it was sort of refreshing to find a rich young woman in a military household who actually does not want to be a fighter. I came into this novel expecting an Arya-like character, but instead Kestrel strains against her dad’s will to train as a soldier and instead really just wants to play music.
LIZ: Well, there are two main characters here, really. Kestrel, who seems to have grown up at odds with her culture’s norms, and Arin, who’s first introduced to us in his own POV as “the slave.” The Valorian way of life offers two options for a girl of Kestrel’s social position: marriage, or enrollment in the army. Kestrel wants neither. Instead, as Stefan mentions, she wants to play music—which is unacceptable for a Valorian: proper citizens have slaves to do that kind of thing for them. And Arin, it turns out, isn’t an ordinary slave. A son of a good family before the Valorians conquered the Herrani, he has plans of his own to get back at the foreign oppressors. Which leads to complicated places for both Kestrel and Arin when they find themselves falling in love, or at least deep adolescent lust, with each other.
STEFAN: While we were chatting about this novel, you said “the novel feels a bit too comfortable at times” or something to that effect. I think that’s in large part because the horrors of slavery are mostly kept off-camera, but also because Kestrel seems to have (or at least develop) a moral compass that most people in her social circle lack, making it easy to identify with her. Of course it’s unfair to expect something like Twelve Years A Slave in a novel aimed at a younger audience, but I still felt a bit let down by the simplistic approach to the idea of slavery.
LIZ: Hmm. I do think it averts its eyes a lot, yes. An interesting comparison here is with Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze—I don’t know if you’ve read it?—which is also written for the Young Adult market. While the slavery it treats of is the 19th century American variant, it’s much better at portraying the injustices and insecurities that attend people with no legal and little social protection from exploitation and abuse. But here Arin essentiallybehaves like a free man—a young man with a tendency to brood over the unfairness of his circumstances and the cruelty of his oppressors, but not a man who seems all that apprehensive in them.
Let me state for the record that I enjoyed The Winner’s Curse—I enjoyed it a whole lot, truth be told—but I have a significant number of problems with it, of which this is only one.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s good Young Adult fiction, and it plays well to the heightened emotionality, the extremes of feeling, of adolescent experience. It’s entirely possible that many of the problems I have with it have to do in large part with my background as an ancient historian. Because The Winner’s Curse is explicitly influenced (Rutkoski acknowledges this in the “Author’s Note” at the end) by the Roman conquest of Greece, and in particular, it seems to me, by Lucius Mummius’ (later L. Mummius Achaicus, since he received the agnomen for his victory over the Achaean League) razing of Corinth in 146 BC. The text itself makes the parallels fairly obvious, with Herrani artwork and such having been shipped off to the Valorian capital, and there are clear nods in the narrative to the Roman inspiration behind the Valorians. (Kestrel’s father is called Trajan, after all.)
But Corinth was one city among many: the city where the majority of The Winner’s Curse’s action takes place seems to exist in a peculiar sort of isolation. Apart from the Valorian capital and some scarcely-mentioned farther-off barbarians, there is no other context for the political forces whose ramifications drive the novel’s more personal tensions. What the narrative tells us seems thin scaffolding indeed around which to construct such an edifice of conflicting loyalties, love, and betrayal—and the text can’t seem to make up its mind whether all Herrani have been enslaved, or whether some are still free-but-socially-inferior persons.
And then there are Kestrel’s culturally unusual morals… She feels guilty, ashamed, about owning slaves and belonging to a conquering nation, while her fellow country-people don’t see it as any kind of issue. It makes her rather easier to approve of, to identify with, from the perspective of a reader accustomed to the idea of universal human rights.
STEFAN: I haven’t read the Delia Sherman novel you mentioned, but it sounds like the way it deals with slavery is closer to what I hoped for in The Winner’s Curse. We discussed at some point during our reading that many people seem to be much less aware of slavery culture in that historical era. This feels like a missed opportunity to explore that topic with more realism.
As for the quality of the prose, I felt Rutkoski did a decent job of it for 90% of the novel but went completely off the rails in a few spots. Most of The Winner’s Curse consists of perfectly acceptable, conversational prose, but there are a few scenes where it switches to a very forced over-the-top style, with painful sentences like:
The auctioneer sheathed his knife, but Kestrel couldn’t sheathe her dread.
Music made her feel as if she were holding a lamp that cast a halo of light around her, and while she knew there were people and responsibilities in the darkness beyond it, she couldn’t see them. The flame of what she felt when she played made her deliciously blind.
He had threaded desire into the braids, had wanted her to sense it even as he dreaded that she would.
It’s unfortunate that the author occasionally strays into this type of purple prose, because again, most of the novel is perfectly readable.
LIZ: Perfectly readable! That’s damnable faint praise there, Stefan. I can’t say I really noticed the prose: it whips along at a swift and breezy rate, carrying bucketloads of emotional tension… until it hits one of those patches where it becomes bizarrely overwrought. “Her blood turned to wine,” stood out for me in that regard.
To go back to what I said about ancient slavery while we were each reading the novel—well, it’s not my specialist area, and slavery in the ancient Mediterranean had different contours to the much-better-documented race-based slavery in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe and the Americas, in part because the average slave couldn’t be distinguished from the average free person on sight and in part because under Rome, at least, the offspring of freedpersons were not legally distinct from the offspring of ordinary citizens. And the exact shape of ancient slavery, its demographics, economic contribution, social experience, is still intently debated…
Sorry, I’ve gone off on a tangent and forgot my real point.
Shall we skip ahead a bit, and talk about the developments that we have to spoiler in order to discuss?
STEFAN: Well, “perfectly readable” isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me—more or less the same as your saying “I can’t say I really noticed the prose”. It’s nothing fancy and it does what it’s supposed to do—except on those occasions when it goes over the edge.
But yes, moving on. Formal warning: spoilers ahead!
There are few scenes and plot developments I want to look at specifically, but the main idea that struck me was how surprisingly tragic the whole setup is. Kestrel is basically being manipulated right from the start. Stories in which characters discover a slave’s or servant’s humanity are nothing new;The Winner’s Curse puts a dark spin on that idea when Arin’s true goals become clear. With regards to Arin’s role in the revolution: I found it hard to believe that one person could forge enough weapons to arm a whole rebellion, especially without being noticed.
As for specific developments and scenes: the way Kestrel correctly figured out the all-important password from the way the captain looked at his plate is ridiculous. I thought that, after the uncomfortable build-up of tension between Cheat and Kestrel, the foot-washing scene was very nice and subtly done, but unfortunately (and unnecessarily) the author then spelled it out with an attempted rape scene anyway. Worst of all, I felt that the novel fell apart at the very end: first we get ten or so pages of snooze with the dream story, then the war and siege are wrapped up far too quickly.
LIZ: Well, you twit me over calling things “competently written.” I figure I should hit you back for “perfectly readable.” *g*
Right. Yes. Let’s talk about the relationship between Kestrel and Arin, and how Arin is basically a planted traitor for a slave revolt/general Herrani insurrection. There are two things here that I gave The Winner’s Curse a pass on while reading, but in retrospect feel really thin: the string of coincidences necessary to plant Arin in Kestrel’s (Kestrel’s father’s) household, and the fact that once he’s in place, he’s assigned as a blacksmith and somehow, without anyone noticing, is able to make enough weapons to equip several dozen (possibly as many as a hundred or more: this is another point at which the text is unclear) potential rebels.
Compared to these points, the rapidity and intensity with which Kestrel and Arin conceive feelings for each other, which is rapid and intense even by the heightened standards for emotionality current in YA, doesn’t really seem like something it’s fair to quibble over. Kestrel, who is not very good at fighting, is prepared to duel a fellow noble to defend Arin; Arin, once the revolution has—however temporarily—succeeded, risks a great deal to protect Kestrel.
And about that foot-washing scene. When Cheat is rubbing Kestrel’s nose in the fact that the tables have turned and she’s the one in the power of the conquerors, it struck me as… well, it is subtle in a sense? I don’t necessarily disagree with your perception of it: as an example of characters displaying the new power roles within the narrative, it’s subtle enough. But it also felt to me as if the narrative was being just a little too heavy-handed in driving home that reversal of roles—while, at the same time, not placing Kestrel—or Arin, if we’re honest—in a position where Really Bad Things Happen To Them Personally Right Now.
There is, of course, the later rape attempt. But I’m past the point where I can really view rape attempts by characters playing villainous roles as anything other than cliché, in the main. It’s terrible to say this about something that negatively affects so many lives in the real world, but fictional rape attempts? Mostly old hat, and frequently not very interesting as a narrative device.
…I don’t know why I have so much to criticise in a novel I really rather enjoyed reading. But it turns out that I can’t ever turn my brain off and stop picking holes.
Briefly, let’s return to Kestrel’s characterisation. The novel characterises her as a strategist: there’s a lot of telling about how good she is at strategising her way around things. But for someone who’s supposed to be even slightly good at this, she’s rather poor at judging people, and not doing a great line in cost-benefit analysis either. I mean, I like her as a character, and I like Arin too, and their little angst-riddled circle of torn loyalties and inevitable betrayal is certainly not your usual run of doomed romance! But I can’t help but feel that what the narrative shows us is a bit at odds with what it tells us. What do you think?
STEFAN: I agree completely. Like you, I mostly enjoyed the novel, but somehow kept finding things to criticize or pick at. We may not be doing a very good job in getting the point across that this is actually a pretty good YA story, despite its flaws.
LIZ: We should just send interested readers to Marissa Lingen’s blogpost on it. To quote her:
“[I]f you are thinking, oh, the winner’s curse, that’s an economics term: you are correct. It is indeed that winner’s curse. Marie Rutkoski has written a YA fantasy novel with a major central love story around an economics term. She’s explored it on more than one level. Because she is smart and trusts young people to be smart. And also old people. Whoever, really. I appreciate that a lot.”
Lingen convinced me I wanted to read it—and I don’t regret it at all. Pulling apart all the places where it failed to live up to the full potential of what itcould have been (and while it’s good, it could have been fabulous—we only criticise because we care!) doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still a fast, fun, enjoyable book. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.
STEFAN: Me too. Despite my misgivings, I’m actually curious to see where Marie Rutkoski will take this story and these characters in the next volume—especially given the way this one ends.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on February 27th, 2014. You can also read an excerpt here at Tor.com, and a companion short story entitled “Bridge of Snow” here.