The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski follows Kestrel as a seventeen year old girl and a general’s daughter. Her destiny is already set for her; join the military or get married. However, her still naive mindset from being sheltered all her life, has different ideas and paths that could cause an avalanche of disasters. Each mistake takes the price of hundreds of lives, each choice comes with harsh consequences, and how much will it take for her grow out her shell and open her eyes to the cold, back stabbing world.

“But when you are faced with only two choices— the military or marriage—don’t you wonder if there is a third, or a fourth, or more, even, than that?”

The story is set in a world where war is at the edge of commencing, with rebellions standing up after the Valorians, white and fair, raided and overtook the land, enslaving the surviving Herrani, dark skinned and native to the land. Her less open minded friend dragged her out to a slave auction resulting in Kestrel impulsively buying Arin after learning about his ability to sing. This is one of the many choices her naive mind caused as she had made two mistakes here; buying a slave she has no need for making her engage in unnecessary problems, and buying him for a ridiculous price, thus the title “The Winner’s Curse.”

Kestrel drew in a shaky breath. Her bones felt watery. What had she done?
The pointy-chinned woman snickered. “Looks like someone’s suffering the Winner’s Curse. The Winner’s Curse is when you come out on top of the bid, but only by paying a steep price.”

Little does she know, money won’t be the only price payed when she said the words “Fifty keystones.” From here it is clear how deep the music theme is rooted into Kestrel’s character, and the defiance from Arin that burned like a glaring fire attracted Kestrel, reminding her of herself when her controlling father demanded something from her, she refused to do. This attraction she feels soon became much stronger and a reoccurring problem as she decides between what in her life is of greater importance. Arin himself hides many secrets of his own, however they were born in two completely different settings with a great contrast of how their lives played out; he clearly deals with problems and hardships much better than Kestrel does. The secrets he burdens will scar many and amplify the price Kestrel shall pay for him.

As I read this book I found the first half too slow yet still confusing, but the second half was amazing. The first half was cliché with a love triangle between a “brute- a dark, brooding, wild slave” and a “a handsome, blond-haired, affable young nobleman”. Kestrel is weak and naive, willing to put aside everything and everyone’s lives so she could… play the piano (“If the Herrani hadn’t prized music so highly before the war, that, too, might have changed things. But in the eyes of Valorian society, music was a pleasure to be taken, not made, and it didn’t occur to many that the making and the taking could be the same.”) which it later on explained why music meant so much to Kestrel even though her practicing such art is shameful, also adding on to why she had impulsively bought Arin at the auction), and Arin the “slave” acted nothing like how a slave during that era would be presented. Yes the defiance was what first attracted Kestrel to him and the way he didn’t act like a slave contributed to later plots, however I feel like it was much too exaggerated. Instead of an accurate representation of similar historical events in the book, it was off and very unbelievable. This first half was full of Kestrel overthinking and Arin’s cold behavior with small events such as secret music sessions which further empowered the idea of how music dived deep in both characters. Everything except the actions of the slave was subtly done to prepare for the action and political filled second half. Kestrel was a hard character to like as she was so indecisive, not wanting to be in the military, get married, or a career. Instead she just floats along and makes many choices without thinking about the consequences. She is weak and allows her own slave to walk all over her even in front of her own peers; she is unable to differentiate between discipline and cruelty resulting with her having no boundaries. She gets in so much trouble and rash decisions to “save” Arin, however the events at risk was a couple lashes or a duel.

His hands fell away. “You, too. What a stupid thing for you to do. Why did you do that? Why would you do such a stupid thing?”
“You might not think of me as your friend,” Kestrel told Arin, “but I think of you as mine.”

Her actions were so impulsive and clearly unintentional, it wasn’t till the second half she started to grow up. She learns to not trust everyone and to think for herself, but also follow through a stand up for her actions. Arin was reckless as well but as the story was mainly from Kestrel’s view; she thought very highly of him. However Arin caused many problems as well such as risking an entire mission for one sentimental book. The love triangle also irritated me, mainly because I sympathized for Ronan, the other guy. Kestrel was thinking about Arin while being in Ronan’s arms, like WHAT??? The only part I really liked about this romance was that it wasn’t instant love, instead it was very gradual. I also enjoyed how they can both admit their faults and tries to communicate unlike many other love tropes. Overall I would rate it 7.5/10, with many parts that can be improved but the plot, idea, and the writing style was very smooth.

Great book, but with many small factors that irritated me throughout the experience.