The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Kestrel refuses to join the military like her father wants her to. They live on an island conquered by the Valorian army and her father is a general, but Kestel wants to continue playing her music not killing people. She also doesn’t want to get married, which is her other option in Valerian society. When in the markets with her best friend one day, Kestrel finds herself at the slave market and then against her better judgment she buys a young man. Arin is an unusual slave, a gifted blacksmith, he also has a connection to music though he tries to hide it. The two of them slowly begin to fall in love with one another, though both of their societies forbid it. But the world is about to twist and turn around them, bringing their love into question, their motives into doubt, and placing their very lives at risk.
Rutkoski has created a world tinged with magic but not overflowing with it. While her book has the feel of a light romance, it has much more depth than that. It is a book that explores questions about slavery, about what victors in a war should be able to take and own, about protection and when that becomes a sort of slavery or jail. There is romance, definitely, but it is a romance built on unequal footing and even lies.
This is a society in a precarious state, delicately balanced and written so that the reader is very aware not only of how uncertain things are but also of the forces at work to destroy that balance. Rutkoski does a great job of creating a world where the enslaved people had recently lived in the homes where they now work as servants. The tug and pull of this and their connection to the land is a vital part of the book and makes the world unique and riveting.
The two main characters each have chapters of the book from their points of view. Kestrel struggles against the constraints of her warrior upbringing, a society that is strict and formal but also bloodthirsty. Arin has lost everything and much of the story is the reader trying to figure out what and who Arin once was. Their relationship mirrors the world they are caught in. It is rebellious, as delicate as blown glass, and yet with a core of strength.
A stunning cover will have teens finding themselves thrown headlong into a world of corruption, war and slavery but also one of romance and beauty. Powerful and magnificent, there are no easy answers between these covers but the questions are certainly worthy of exploration. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.