Seventeen year old Kestrel, the general’s daughter, buys an attractive slave at an auction and grows attracted to him. The slave, Arin, is secretly organising a rebellion to overthrown Kestrel’s people, even though he’s falling in love with her.
That’s basically the summary for The Winner’s Curse. There’s not a huge amount of conflict. I mean sure, there’s ‘forbidden love’ and all that, but it’s only forbidden because the high society people gossip, or something like that. Nothing actually happens to Kestrel when (false) rumours start flying about her taking a slave lover, and although Arin is threatened, nothing happens to him, either. It’s not even forbidden, although Kestrel sure does act like it. Ladies have been known to take slave lovers, so I didn’t even get what the big deal was.
The forbidden love aspect is just icky, too. Mostly because Arin never acts like a slave. Arin is condescending, disrespectful, really fucking angry and treats everyone like an inferior, including those he is supposed to be enslaved to. He talks back to Kestrel in front of people and walks all over her in public. And Kestrel lets him! Similarly Kestrel, who spends most of the book wandering barren hallways and not really doing much (ugh, poor little rich girl), gives Arin special privileges and acts like he’s not even a slave. The whole slave/owner dichotomy is completely avoided because no one really gives a shit that there’s supposed to be a power play here. They also never let their ‘forbidden’ feelings get in the way of bigger issues, such as the country going to war.
Later in the novel(show spoiler)
Kestrel doesn’t do anything, just wanders the house. She never has to live like a slave or work hard because she’s privileged and special (she also doesn’t fight because she’s a tactical person). She waits around for a chance to escape, and even though Arin has declared his love for her, she never returns it. In fact, she betrays him, and he lets her. That’s not love, it’s certainly not romantic, and I felt uncomfortable the whole time reading this supposedly ‘romantic’ book.
I also found the constant point of view shift annoying. The novel felt like a series of vignettes strung together, constantly nattering on small events that meant more than they appeared. There were several POV shifts per chapter, and they never lasted long. The book took the paragraph break for granted in an attempt to pace the book, but I found myself being pulled out of a short story and thrown into another and wondering why I should care about what just happened. Other than that, the writing was rather sweet and elegant, I guess, nice and easy to read and pulled me into the novel without fail (until the dreaded breaks).
Would I recommend it? Not as a romance, and not as a book that explores a power play between slave and mistress. Not as a fantasy, either, for it’s not really a fantasy, nor a historical. It seems to exist in its own queer shelf. The end of the book didn’t even wrap everything up, and I’m left wondering at the fates of some of the secondary characters and pretty much the world as it is. Perhaps this was deliberate in an attempt to get me to read the sequel, but I probably won’t because I’m grossed out by the whole romance thing.
Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have even picked this book up based on the cover or blurb if it weren’t for nearly all my high-profile friends going nuts over this at BEA in 2013. I don’t consider it a waste of my time but I do consider it way overhyped.