I'd previously only read this author's middle-grade novels. Her debut with THE CABINET OF WONDERS, was a Cybs contender awhile back, and pretty amazing in terms of detail and overall WOW factor of new-things-per-page. I LOVED that novel, so when I read the jacket flap on this one, I wasn't quite sure how to feel. It's totally different territory, of course, intended for readers 14-18; it's not magical fantasy, exactly, quite... sort of. Nor is it exactly entirely historical fantasy-fiction; there is a bit of magic... thus it's perfect for the Cybils YA Speculative Fiction Category. As this is a Cybils review, it will focus solely on summary and leave much else to the judge's discussions.
Happiness depends on being free. And freedom depends on being courageous.
Summary: An average fighter with a general for a father, Kestrel is deeply unimpressed with the choices her society has left a young woman of her age: join the army or get married. She's nearing the age of decision, and General Trajan is pushpushpushing her to join the army. It's the ultimate "bring your daughter to work" thing, but Kestrel hates the drills, isn't good at the discipline, and prefers to spar with her mind - which fortunately her father allows, as she plays Bite and Sting and works on war theory - that uses her wit, and she's really, really, really good at it. But, she's still... discomfited. Too smart to be a pretty, precious jewel locked in a box and kept safe. Not vicious enough to be one of the locks on the jewelery box. Not really bored, but not really... engaged. Not really happy... The vast Valorian empire is holding the Herrani's country as victors, in the name of might, but Kestrel, though she's known nothing else, feels neither mighty, nor valorous. She's looking for something more... then inadvertently finds it.
Valorians keep slaves - and Herrani slaves are normal. Less normal is Kestrel simply buying one because she had the cash in hand, and he looked interesting. He keeps ... bugging her - just by not looking particularly cowed or downtrodden. He says, "No." He's... really not that great a slave, when it comes down to it. But, there's something within him that draws her. Sure, he's swoony, yeah, and she's heard he can sing. But, there's something else... Inevitably, Kestrel begins to fall in love - and then the shape of the world changes yet again.
Conclusion Rutkoski's worldbuilding is lush and detailed, and readers who like romances, novels of manners and war and political intrigues will eat this first in a trilogy right up. This is a novel about the balance of power, about victories in the political arena, about slavery, protection and dominance, about who has the right to shape history, the survivors or the victors. Mostly, this novel is about winning and losing and the lies we tell ourselves to believe in both.
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.
I received my copy of this book from the library. You can find THE WINNER'S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!