Friday, 14 February 2014

review: The Winner's Curse

by Marie Rutkoski
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 4 2014
young adult fantasy
ARC received via publisher (thank you!)

As a general's daughter in a warmongering nation that enslaves its conquests, Kestrel's piano skills are much less valuable than her tactical ability. But soon the question of whether she'll marry or enter the army — there are no other options — becomes moot when the slave she bought on a whim at an auction turns out to be part of a huge uprising of the Herrani people, who are ready to take back their land.
The cover:

The decadent, vintage pink colour scheme is very nice, but almost everything about this cover is misleading. The clean sans serif font and the dark hardwood floor background make the cover seem more like a memoir of societal balls rather than a high fantasy.

The book:

There was so much hype leading into my reading of this book. On top of that, I was very worried that the slave/master concept would become a token trope used as a shortcut in worldbuilding. (I checked; Marie Rutkoski is a white lady.)

Well, the area I had least to worry about was the writing. There is a simple spareness and mastery of structure which permeates through Rutkoski's writing that follows the less-is-more principle; paragraphs describe action and end unexpectedly, leaving space for the emotions to fill themselves in. On a larger scale, the movement from chapter to chapter keeps us shifting from scene to self-contained scene, wasting no time with transitions and allowing tensions to build high, but not too high.

This writing style is entwined with the narration of Kestrel's, and Arin's to a lesser extent, third-person narration. I seem to compare all really solid third-person POVs to Diana Peterfreund's For Darkness Shows The Stars because they seem so rare nowadays, and this is a compliment to both books (a mutual compliment? Is that a thing?). It automatically cuts down on the amount of angst we experience from both characters' heads while still giving an excellent sense of their wants, wishes and hopes. This also aids the balance of feelings vs. action and the overall pacing, and helps the romance feel organic.

In fact, the pacing is something I've seen other bloggers comment on the most, and it is indeed very good, thanks to the aforementioned writing and passing of time through the chapters. After the turning point midway-through, things slow down since we continue to get mostly Kestrel's POV, and she's not in as active a role as she is in the first half. That brings me to the subject of the slave/master concept.

The best I can tell, Rutkoski avoids making any kind of statement on slavery by making it a non-issue halfway through the book. However, this is disappointing in and of itself; though it's not condoned, it also isn't examined at all, which is problematic in that it becomes something utilized for its sensationality, rather than any kind of meaning. (Why not just have the Herrani a people forced to live in the country or something, rather than dragging a loaded concept like slavery in?) Here, the comparison to For Darkness Shows the Stars hurts The Winner's Curse; FDStS developed the idea of enslaved Reduced people extremely well, and showed that development. However, in The Winner's Curse, the Herrani are somehow enslaved once the Valorians defeat them in battle, and then a few short years later throw off that enslavement thanks to a rebellion like it was nothing. There are few, if any, repercussions for the slavery; it makes me wonder if it will play any role at all in the sequels. One would hope so.

Otherwise, the worldbuilding is satisfactory. The nobility is very standard, but peopled with interesting characters, and the excellent ending hints at the development of a larger world outside of the island (?) which Kestrel and Arin are originally on.  I'm not sure if I'd want to read the next book because of the way their romance is wrapped up in this one, but the political intrigue will most likely be enough to keep readers attached.

Ethnic balance: 2 out of 5. Of course, Kestrel and the Valorians are white, with blond, red and light brown hair. I guess this makes the Herrani black/brown/every single other race?

Rating: 3.9 out of 5