The Winner’s Curse
People in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark.
I guess we’re back on the bandwagon of reading 2010s-published YA fantasy that I missed out on when I was probably in the right age range to appreciate it. It is with gladness in my heart that I say I was wrapped up in this and engaged with this fantasy, following a world inspired by Greco-Roman slavery and two main characters from different sides. It is with a heavier heart that I say some aspects of it really were not hitting their marks.
(Spoilers tagged as we do.)
The best thing about this book is the entire idea behind Kestral’s character. Kestral is really really interesting. The most unarchetypal strong female character I think I’ve seen in popular ya lit from this time period. Kestral is actively not a fighter and can’t hold a sword for shit. She is also, however, an incredible manipulator. She does it a lot. Successfully. At one point she does it to a terrible man she is fighting and it’s by far the best scene in this book. I get very into mind games and it was this that held my attention the most. Were this book in a completely different setting and nothing but Kestral playing mind games I would have been obsessed and given it five stars do not @ me.
Arin was a character I wanted to like so bad but his internal narration is just… deeply frustrating. I feel like when you have a main character who makes a lot of bad decisions, it needs to be justified with strong characterization. I felt like in comparison Kestrel was so much more complex, which is hilarious, because Arin is the character whose side I was rooting for way more in this. (He did grow on me over time.) And almost all of the side characters are instantly forgettable. Sorry, Ronan, the most transparent attempt at a good guy trope I’ve seen in years.
The thing that I feel complex about is the issue of slavery. Let’s go through a few points.
So, first off, slavery presents a power imbalance no matter what context it appears in. Having a romance between a master and a slave, no matter what the context, presents a huge power imbalance and arguably an automatically bad one. This is very clearly an allegory for Greco-Roman slavery, rather than chattel slavery, which are very different. (Were this an allegory for chattel slavery this romance would be genuinely disgusting do not pass go do not collecrt $500.) I think I feel similarly about this to how I feel about, say, parts of An Ember in the Ashes: much as I know that no character plans to/ever threatens to violate boundaries, there’s a power dynamic between the main couple that means they could, and that in and of itself makes certain scenes uncomfortable rather than romantic.
Ideas of the conflict between nations are handled in a manner that is at times good and at times sort of a mess. I liked that the conquered nation was in-text the peaceful, art-loving one and the conquering nation the ‘barbaric’ one. A lot more accurate to actual histories! I appreciated that though Kestral herself is xenophobic, the book criticizes her views heavily over time. I wished this had happened before any of the romance had taken place, as I genuinely could not get invested in a romance essentially between a xenophobe and the person she’s xenophobic towards. (Since we’ve brought up An Ember In the Ashes, I could not help mentioning that it does not commit that crime!)
There are some redeeming qualities, however, specifically in the second half of the book. First of all: [halfway through the book, the book flips on its head, and Kestral becomes the conquered, with Arin as the member of a conquering nation]. This was handled interestingly. [The idea of turning all of Kestral and Arin’s power plays on their head is a good one. However, the book then becomes far more sympathetic to the Valorian cause than I would’ve expected, given they literally conquered and enslaved an entire people. Not to be like colonists but colonists. Also, the Herrani’s motivations get mildly dubious, which I thiiink is the point? But it’s odd.]
The thing is, we live in a very different context than the Greco-Roman period, with our own histories that don’t necessarily make the clearly well-intentioned aspects of this book all that comfortable. And due to all of those different factors, I really struggled to get invested in this romance. At this point I’m invested enough in both of these characters to care anyway, but we’ll have to see where this goes.
My final note on this book is that the ending sort of slapped. [I absolutely love the purposeful miscommunication to save someone’s life trope. I don’t know. I love it so much.] And I have also heard many times that in comparison to the other books this book is bad. So I don’t know. Maybe second book good. I’ll at least give it a shot.
Amazing how this review took me four months to write. I’m on catchup mode. I promise someday soon I will no longer be on catchup mode.