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Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

AUTHOR: Marie Rutkoski
SERIES: The Winner’s Trilogy, book 1
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
ISBN: 9780374384685
PAGES: 355
SOURCE: purchased e-book
GENRE: historical fiction; romance; regency
SETTING: fictional military kingdom of Valoria

5-SECOND SUMMARY: Spoiled rich girl buys slave and falls for him.

30-SECOND SUMMARY: As the only daughter of a renowned general and leader of the military state of Valoria, Kestrel faces a huge decision: join the military or get married. Kestrel does not want to do either. When she and her friend Jess stumble on a slave market in town one day, Kestrel ends up purchasing a young Herrani slave named Arin. As Arin and Kestrel spend more time together, the two foes on opposite sides of a brewing rebellion slowly begin to fall for one another.

WHAT I LIKED: I’ve seen so many fabulous reviews for this book, and I think ultimately, that was its downfall for me. Lord, but I hate my high expectations–it’s why I prefer to read not-yet-published books before they are all hyped up and fangirled. In this case, I neither loved it nor hated it.

I always love star-crossed romances, and Arin is a strong, complex, sympathetic character. It’s clear he doesn’t want to be friends with Kestrel, and he struggles immensely with his growing amorous feelings for her. I’m not sure what he sees in Kestrel exactly (her father was key in killing his family and enslaving his people), but I definitely liked Arin and his divided loyalties. And though I wasn’t a big fan of Kestrel, I do see some opportunity for her to grow up a bit in the next book.

No insta-love–YAY! There’s attraction, then friendship, then, eventually, something deeper. Arin is a bit swoon-worthy also.

I liked the ending and will probably read the sequel at some point.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE: Choppy writing and a lot of telling. The choppy writing got better as the book went on, but the telling was throughout. I never felt emotionally connected to the story or the characters.

Kestrel. For all her gambling and strategizing, Kestrel is a passive, spoiled, selfish girl who allows things to happen to her, rather than taking her own life in her hands. She isn’t a strong heroine. She isn’t someone I want to root for. Just a few of her many faults:

  • She doesn’t stand up for herself.
  • Her best friend is vapid, gossipy Jess. Birds of a feather…
  • A boy she grew up with loves her, and she leads him on.
  • She buys Arin because…?
  • She thinks that because she treats her slaves well, slavery is justified.

Weak worldbuilding. There is just not enough time spent on worldbuilding. It seemed like the Herrani and Valorians were friends before the Valorians invaded their land and made them slaves. What happened? Was it all just Valorian empire-building? Is this supposed to make me sympathetic to the Valorians?

Pacing. It took forever for anything to happen. Chalk it up to too many swirly dresses and gossipy tea parties.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Neither loved nor hated. The story is okay and interesting enough for me to finish, but the choppy writing, slow pacing, and mega-irritating protagonist bring it down. A lot. Still, I’d like to know what happens, and I will probably read the sequel. See the Readalikes listed below for similar plots with far better execution.

STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: On order. Professional and Goodreads reviewers praise this book highly–it’s clearly popular, and libraries should have a copy.

READALIKES: The Seer and the Sword (Hanley); Candlewax (Sims); Legacy trilogy (Kluver)


  • Overall: 3/5
  • Creativity: 2/5–lots of (better) readalikes
  • Characters: 2/5–Kestrel is too passive; Arin is a Gary Stu
  • Engrossing: 2/5–zzzz for first 75%
  • Writing: 2/5–choppy sentences; telling not showing
  • Appeal to teens: 5/5–will be easy to booktalk
  • Appropriate length to tell the story: 3/5–story drags at times


  • Language: mild; a few damns
  • Sexuality: mild-medium; kissing; possibility of forced marriage; mention of adultery; allusion to rape; sexual innuendo
  • Violence: medium; mass murder, arson/explosives, rebellion, dueling with knives, slaves are beaten
  • Drugs/Alcohol: mild; wine, poison

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