Book Review: The Winner's Curse (Mania.com)

By:Chuck Francisco
Review Date: Saturday, March 08, 2014
Source: Mania.com

The Winner's Curse is a fantasy romance novel. And with that, the collective groan of my readership causes seismic shifts powerful enough to enact Lex Luthor's plan from Superman: The Movie (hope you dig living in Otisville). Let's start over and be more specific.

The Winner's Curse is the high fantasy tale of a conquered country, its aristocratic masters, and the once proud people turned slaves who live in Herran. Yes, romance is a core theme of this book, but I found that it was handled in a realistic way, which never veered down the easy, cheap road to become a book of Twilight's ilk. People don't simply loose themselves because it's the whimsical thing to do. Author Marie Rutkoski carefully applies the emotion weight, being cautious never to tip the scales with over wrought angst. Still with me? Good, because The Winner's Curse has a cool fantasy setup that you'll probably dig.

Our protagonist is Kestrel, the only daughter of Veloria's mightiest general, and a seventeen year old lady of a war hungry, aristocratic society. Veloria is the sort of aggressive society that teaches their children about the proper way to go about honor killing themselves, should the need arise. They may sound like Klingons, and in truth they have much in common with them, but in their daily lives they are far less aggressive. General Trajan and his daughter live among the enslaved Herran, a formerly artistic people who had no quarrel with Veloria before the conquering campaign. 

Kestrel is a girl with a passion for playing the piano, an act which her society deems worthless since it doesn't involve being a solider or spawning more soldiers. Valorians are required to either enlist in the military to fight, or marry and reproduce to feed the emperor's war machine. Yet despite her cunning and tactical brilliance, Kestral wants neither, since choosing signals an end to her musical indulgences. So when she comes across a slave for auction who can sing, she snatches him up in the hopes of having found a kindred spirit. She get much more than she bargained for, as the title teases.

It's difficult to describe much more without spoiling the interesting twists and turns that The Winner's Curse takes. Yes, it does brandish romantic drama on its sleeve, but taking more than a surface glance, diving deeper, finds a story rich with cloak and dagger machinations. There's a very solid Les Miserables vibe in play here, set in a world just as believable as revolutionary France. Rutkoski writes with flourishing prose that pours off the page and over the waterfall of the imagination. It is her skill with revelations and pacing which powers this novel's flight. Again The Winner's Curse rises above typical romance riff raff with the liberal application of slight of hand; there several twists and turns in the plot which readers will not see coming (which is absolutely refreshing in a literary sea of otherwise sameness). 

Still, if you interests skew dramatically away from aristocratic fantasy, or you have a solid aversion to romance in your genre novels, The Winner's Curse likely isn't going to tickle your pickle. But if you've got a mind for a richer romance tale, told in an interesting fantasy setting, which properly balances intrigue and action, then this may very well be right up your alley. Fans of Mary Robinette Kowel especially should take note, as The Winner's Curse does many of the same things right that Without a Summer did ( Review here).

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski hit store shelves this week (and is the first book in a coming trilogy). You can read the first five chapters On the official webpage. It's available from Mac Teen Books as a Hardback for $17.99.

Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous  Colonial Theatre  in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.



Mania Grade: B-
Author: Marie Rutkoski
Book Series: The Winner's Trilogy
Publisher: Mac Teen Books
Genre: Fantasy/Romance/Teen
Format: Hardback, 368 pages
Series: