The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski
What happens when cunning strategy encounters unexpected sympathy from the wrong side of conquest? In this novel of intrigue and forbidden love, Kestrel--a young noblewoman of the Valorian empire--buys a native slave at auction in the conquered kingdom of the Herrani, despite misgivings. She shouldn’t have been at the slave market in the first place, and her wealthy household doesn't need another slave. And yet the auctioneer has made the young man (a blacksmith) sound attractive, since her powerfully placed father needs his own smith to serve his personal guard. And the slave himself stirs her pity with his refusal to sing at the auctioneer’s behest–to sing?! Kestrel herself is a talented pianist, an oddity amongst a group of aristocrats who value only the accomplishments of fighting prowess in both sexes. She impulsively bids for the young smith, and when she finally wins him, she is told by a bystander that she has earned “the winner’s curse,”--winning an auctioned item but only by spending too much for it. And it doesn’t take long for the reader and Kestrel to understand how steep the slave’s price really is.
This is a fine story for those who enjoy seeing the play of sharp minds and sympathetic hearts meet, engage, withdraw, and engage again. We are not in the realm of non-stop action, or heroines who enjoy nothing more than beating up the requisite heartthrob and/or his rival for her affections. Actually, there is such a scene, but Kestrel is a reluctant fighter, knowing full well she doesn’t have the skill or the thrilling heart of a warrior. What Kestrel has is sympathy for others (including the enslaved people of the Herrani kingdom where she lives with her General father), an unusual appreciation for “civilized” culture, and a highly strategic mind that her father admires. Soon she will have to choose a career--either marriage or soldiering--in all probability having to leave her beloved music reluctantly behind. And then Arin, the blacksmith, begins to insinuate himself into her mind. Why had she bought him? She is praised for his purchase, he is a fine smithy, but to where are the weapons he is forging disappearing? Are they really vanishing into the estate manager’s pockets as profits from their illegal sale on the black market? And why is she having Arin leave his blacksmith duties to escort her to her friends’ houses, to their parties, to her trips to the market? Why does she find it comfortable to talk to him, but disagreeable to hear the compliments of her male peers? Whatever made her play the piano for him, and play a piece of music that he chooses? And why did he tell her his real name? Can a master truly befriend a slave?
The build-up of this first book of a trilogy is slow but steady, and the world-building is far less (delightfully) descriptive than it was in the author’s earlier trilogy, The Kronos Chronicles. We learn a few things about Kestrel’s society: blond invaders bent on conquest, with a “barbaric” culture that extolls battle and domination and ever-expanding borders; and a little of Arin’s now-subsumed Herrani people, with their love of learning and the arts turned into entertainments performed by slaves for the enjoyment of the conquerors. Maybe that’s enough--for now. Crossed and double-crossed, it is the glancing interplay between these two accidental friends that furnishes the push in this story, young trapped people who will find their paths entangled and very painful to trod before this book is finished. I anticipate more anguish and intrigue for them and those they care about before the trilogy is finished, and I look forward to reading every page to come.
My rating: 4
Reviewed by Anarda