Review | The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Posted December 8, 2013 by Asheley in review, Uncategorized / 7 Comments

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Series: Winner’s Trilogy #1
Published by 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Publish Date: March 4, 2014
Find it here:  Goodreads / Amazon / B&N

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.
(from Goodreads) 

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

My Thoughts:  Best book I’ve read in a very long time? OH YES. OH YES, ABSOLUTELY. Without a doubt. 

I am absolutely, firmly against the hype machine but I believe that this book will deserve whatever hype it receives. And I don’t say that lightly, people. 

The first thing you need to know is this:
Kestrel is the daughter of a Valorian high-ranking General. 
There are certain things expected of her based on her position in society. 
Kestrel really doesn’t care about that too much. 
Kestrel is a REMARKABLE character. She is the daughter of a high-ranking military official in the ruling group, the Valorians. Because of this, she is expected not only to conform to the social norms expected any female of her age (walking with an escort through the city, etc.) but she is also expected to join the military pretty soon. If she does not join the military, she is to be married like a good Valorian socialite. The problem with these things is pretty obvious pretty early in the book. 

First of all, Kestrel doesn’t care too much for the norms of society. She believes firmly that if she is expected to fight in the military, she should be able to defend herself in town. In other words, she isn’t a frail woman and doesn’t need an escort! When reminded that it just isn’t proper for a woman of her social standing to be wandering around the city square alone, she often relents and allows her best friend to accompany her, but it is laughable to her because her best friend has no military training at all – she is unable to fight – and is therefore unable to defend her, PERIOD. I love that Kestrel has not only this dry and dark sense of humor but this strong will and intends to use it to gain and keep her independence, to put her foot down, to get what she wants – which is to be able to just WALK ABOUT FREELY. 

Secondly, Kestrel is known as a poor fighter. She has been taking lessons in military combat for years in order to join her father at work, as he is renowned for his skill in the military. Kestrel, however, is just UNGOOD at it. HOWEVER…her skill at military strategy is uncanny and superior and is something that she could perhaps use to the benefit of her people, the Valorians, if she chooses to join the military. Which, remember, she has not decided yet…

Kestrel doesn’t want to be in the military, but she doesn’t want to marry either. She doesn’t feel ready for that sort of commitment. WHY DOES SOCIETY SET THE STANDARDS AND NORMS FOR PEOPLE? WHY CAN’T PEOPLE LIVE THEIR OWN LIVES, MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS? Kestrel does not like the way her life seems to be mapped out for her before she even has the opportunity to live it.

The second thing you need to know is this:
Arin is a slave, purchased by Kestrel on a whim. 
Kestrel didn’t need any slaves, of course, but there was 
just something about this one. 
It was purely by accident that Kestrel ends up at the slave auction when on their way home from the market square – Kestrel hates going there, but just as soon as they walk upon the place, they become pinned in by the crowds and are stuck, held in place by a hungry swarm of people ready to purchase Herrani slaves to work for them. Kestrel hates it…but is oddly fascinated when this one slave – Arin – is brought out for bidding. 

Arin is a blacksmith and it is stated that he can sing, although he refuses to sing for the crowd. He has a defiant air about him, and that is something that seems to intrigue Kestrel. Before she even realizes it, she has bid a fairly high price for him, and she wins him. She reasons that her father, being a military man, can use a blacksmith for making weapons. She brings Arin home and places him among the other slaves, trying to fight her interest in him. 

As he is there, though, becoming acquainted with the surroundings, it is clear that they are both intrigued with one another. He is clearly a slave – he is dirty and tanned from the long, hard work of slavery, yet he speaks well and appears educated – Kestrel wants to know more about him. Arin is indeed a lover of music, although he tries to hide this. However, when Kestrel plays her instruments, he can hear it throughout the grounds and he finds himself lost in the music, taken back to a time when his Herrani people were free and he was allowed to enjoy such luxuries. 

Kestrel and her family do not realize that Arin has a plan in place, a plan that has him situated perfectly at the home of the Valorian General. They do not realize that Arin is outsmarting them and that there is an entire operation happening among the slaves in the city. They do no realize that things are about to happen. Things are about to get ugly. Things are about to be shaken up in the city in the blink of an eye. 

The problem with this: as you might imagine, Kestrel and Arin are developing quite the feelings for one another even as they are enemies. When the THING goes down and Arin is a part of it, Kestrel stands to be taken down as well. She is, after all, the daughter of the General. So how does Arin handle his role in this situation and also his growing feelings for Kestrel? HMMM…

OH MY GOODNESS: STUFF GETS VERY REAL, VERY QUICK. (You know, I mean, for a fantasy story.)

The third thing you need to know is this:
 The BIG THING happens. After that, 
I began biting my nails and didn’t stop until the end of the book.
It’s like I could see it coming and I knew it was coming and I was bracing for the inevitable THING that would happen soon…but I wasn’t sure how things would pan out. I mean, we have Kestrel as the daughter of the ruling group, living in luxury. She has purchased Arin and effectively made him a person of interest to her – she has taken him under her wing, giving him privileges that other slaves do not have. She has made him her escort when she goes out and about, which affords him access to people and places that, as a slave, he really shouldn’t have access to – but remember that Kestrel finds him intriguing and interesting and she is beginning to really, really enjoy his company. They talk and they find that they have a thing or two in common. And the things that they do not have in common? They enjoy finding out about one another. They’re friends…at the very least. 

But when this THING does down…there is a definite change in things. Rules and roles are shifted in such a huge and interesting way. I found myself sending messages to my friend that I was reading along with – some were very CAPSLOCK and OMG!! Some were nervous. Some were excited. Some were in speculation. Some were just in disbelief. There were times when I said “Nooooo!”

THIS BOOK, you guys. THIS BOOK pulled me back into Young Adult when I was kind of bored with YA for a while – I wanted to hug it and dance with it and make it into a movie and re-read it and talk to the characters. Now I just want to shove it into the hands of everyone and force it on them because YES, IT IS THAT GOOD. It really is. 

I was told back when I had the good fortune of visiting BEA in New York last year that THIS BOOK would be one of the big ones this upcoming year – if not the big one – and GOOD GRACIOUS, that was such a correct prediction. So very right. 


Okay, so The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski has re-established my love for young adult fiction in a way that hasn’t happened since I began reading YA years ago. I’m really excited about this book. And I honestly feel a little less-than-able to adequately express how much I love it and believe it a truly fantastic book in a mere blog post. I think I could more adequately do it in big group of blog posts, but I won’t do that to everyone. I just want to do the book justice. I want to sit across from you all and actually talk to you all about it, every one of you.

First of all, I think that I need to speak on Kestrel as a main character. I have for a long time been a fan of kick-butt leading ladies and have been able to list my favorites quickly to anyone. But here we have this really amazing leading lady and she doesn’t quite fit my mold. She is NOT a great fighter, so she isn’t kick-butt in my traditional sense. HOWEVER, she is still probably going on my list. WHY IS THAT? Because she uses her mind and she does better job of it than anyone else in the lands. She is the perfect example of WHO SAID GIRLS CAN’T BE SMART AND PRETTY TOO? She outwits people regularly in the book, she thinks her way through tough situations, and she uses her head to protect people that she loves (even when they can’t see it, even when I couldn’t initially see it, even when it hurts sometimes). Kestrel has her own opinions in a world where gals her age aren’t really allowed to have their own opinions, and she isn’t afraid to verbalize them and execute them. She stands behind her decisions, even when she makes the wrong ones – and when she does, she seeks to make things right. She really made me angry a few times and despite this, I really love her as a character. I can see (and hope for) so much growth in her future. I can see (and hope for) some big OH SNAP! moments up ahead. I can see the possibility of Kestrel really coming out and showing us what she is really made of in huge ways. 

Kestrel isn’t my favorite character, though, and I’m sure this doesn’t shock anyone. I’m a fan of the guys almost always, and Arin is no exception. I love his story – his past, his present, and what I presume is his future (based on the ending of the book). I refuse to spoil any single part of it here but I will say that OH MY GOSH ARIN IS THE ONE THAT CAPTIVATED MY HEART FROM THE BEGINNING. I feel like it was easy to read Kestrel but Arin kept surprising me. He kept revealing things about himself that made me realize that there was/is so much more to his character than a slave…and then a person with secrets…and then a person that was involved in the big THING that happened. By the end of the book, I was absolutely REELING with a bazillion feelings that involved this guy because of how I had felt about his character throughout the book. He kept me on my toes and I really loved him for it. Despite this, I never felt uneasy about him. I never felt distrustful of him. I never felt nervous about him. I just felt in awe of how he could be as smart as he was/is and patient as he was/is and reveal himself slowly, living as a slave and just waiting for the right time to act out. Arin is remarkable and OH MY GOSH I CAN’T STAND THAT I HAVE TO WAIT SO LONG TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS WITH THIS ONE. This is where the long wait for the next book is going to drive me insane. 

One of the best things about Kestrel and Arin both is how they balance each other out SO WELL and how they both challenge what they’ve grown up believing to be “right” their entire lives. They each make the other one a little more open-minded and I loved that SO MUCH. 

There are other things in this book too. The other characters are GOOD GRIEF amazing. There are some bad guys that are just nasty bad guys – some make it to the next book and some don’t! I love it when an author isn’t afraid to kill off characters. Needless to say, this means there is some betrayal and while it stings while reading it, MAN I LOVED IT. It makes a good story great, especially a story like this. The betrayal in this book absolutely fueled the story and kept it going and seemed to help the characters decide what to do and which direction to go. There are bad decisions made, which I love, because it shows that our characters are flawed, and isn’t it wonderful when we read a book that shows characters that aren’t shiny and perfect all the time? These are YOUNG people in this book and they have some pretty hefty responsibilities – it is not a reasonable expectation to believe that they will always make the right decision. What is great is the character that is built and shown in how they handle themselves in the aftermath. LOVE IT. There is some war, which is interesting, because readers are privy to the strategy behind it. There are great secondary characters – very well developed, not all likable, but fantastic additions to the story because of how they drive it and many of the decisions made by both Kestrel and Arin. And there is a romance. 

The romance is really something special. I LOVE romances in fantasy stories. Here we have two characters that begin on opposite ends of society. Slowly they allow themselves to form a relationship even though that is frowned upon, and they become friends and then a resulting romantic relationship forms. These two feel very strongly for one another but are never really able to act upon it completely because of all of the junk going on around them – the lands are at war and battle and one side is taking over the other side throughout the book. This doesn’t mean that their feelings aren’t complete, though. Their relationship is a very passionate and intense one that happens to be situated in a very bad time. Remember that these two are enemies by the very nature of who they are – Valorian vs. Herrani – so they really shouldn’t be together, and this is something that one of them thinks on quite a bit while the other one does not – the other one seems to be all in. This romance tore my nerves up but I loved it. And that ending – GAH! I actually cried. 

I CRIED. I was THAT invested in this book. 
And oh my goodness it felt so good. 

Needless to say I’ll be re-reading this one and reading the next one and following the heck out of this series because I JUST HAVE TO KNOW. 


Ultimately, I don’t feel like I’ve given you guys anything here that is even close to how remarkable and amazing this book is. The cover is beautiful but that doesn’t do the book justice. Telling you how kick-butt and awesome Kestrel is doesn’t do it justice. Telling you that the romance gripped my heart and ripped it open in a few places doesn’t do it justice. Telling you that there is war and betrayal and that the two main characters come from the two warring sides will not do the book justice, although it might excite you a little bit if you like this type of book. It is complex and wonderfully written and has everything in it that we as readers could possibly love. That is not me randomly gushing – I’m speaking absolute truth. All else I can do is tell you what was shared with me: THIS BOOK is one to watch for, maybe THE ONE to watch for. As a person that adamantly opposes hype, I’m telling you to PAY ATTENTION to the hype for this one, pick this book up, and LOSE YOURSELF IN IT. Don’t read it too fast – visualize every scene, make sure you can hear these characters talk, take the time to create the imagery in your head because it will make the book POP! for you. This world is one that I am excited to be in for the next few years and I am absolutely thrilled at the privilege to read books like this one. GOOD GRACIOUS, I am so excited about this book, you guys. I just don’t know what else to say except that Marie Rutkoski nailed it here. She got it right. The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski belongs on your wishlists and to-read lists. TRUST ME. 

I recommend The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski to fans of young adult fantasy with romance. It is absolutely stunning, this one. I dare you not to love it.


The Winner’s Curse will appeal to fans of:

Young Adult Fantasy with Romance
Slowly-Developing Romance with No Love Triangle
Great Characterization
Plot Twists & Betrayals

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
is currently available for purchase.

**I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest opinion and review. I received no compensation for my thoughts and they are my own! Thank you Farrar Straus and Giroux/Macmillan! 


The Winner’s Trilogy is: 


About Asheley

Asheley is a Southern girl. She loves Carolina blue skies, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and NC craft beer. She loves all things history but prefers books over everything.

You can find her somewhere in North Carolina, daydreaming about the ocean.

Find Asheley on Litsy @intothehallofbooks!


7 responses to “Review | The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

  1. Ooooh, sounds like I am going to need to get my hands on this one! It's very cool that the author made the protagonist bad at fighting but skilled at military strategy – it's easy to make a heroine "strong" simply by making her physically tough, but I think it's harder (but more rewarding) to do it by capitalizing on her intelligence instead.

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed this, Asheley! I've been wondering if the hype for this novel was really worth it, but I trust your opinion explicitly and am thrilled you were such a huge fan of it. I love reading a review and seeing a reader gush over a book because, really, that says so much more than anything else really can. I cannot wait to finally read this next year and, yes, the cover really is just so beautiful. Fantastic review, my friend! 🙂

  3. Oh my gosh… Everyone is talking about this book and I live that it struck such a chord with you, especially when YA was losing it's appeal. I recently read the sequel to When the Sea is Rising Red– and it totally pulled me out of a month long reading slump so I know how you feel. I cannot wait to read this, wish I could get my hands in an early copy (grrrr…) but I'll just try to be patient:) Love how this book affected you, Ash:)

  4. Look at you coming back with a bang with a review of THE WINNER'S CURSE! Unfortunately, I'm not going to read this review until I sort through my own feelings on it. BUT I had fun reading this with you and now we can agonize over the next one together.

  5. Asheley, this sounds absolutely fantastic! I am a bit wary of this simply because of the craziness of the hype machine already (and it doesn't even come out until March!), but this sounds so, so good. Like it even could be my ideal sort of fantasy. I'm glad this one worked out so well for you and even reinvigorated your love of YA literature again. Fingers crossed that it is true for me as well!

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