Having been extremely disappointed by The Fifth Wave early last year, I've become wary of books that get a LOT of hype. I don't like being the black sheep among a sea of five stars since I don't want to be left out, and I don't want people to wonder what the heck is wrong with me ("What? You didn't like it? YOU MUST HAVE MISSED THE POINT!"... believe me, I've gotten a lot of that). But the more I read about this particular book, the more excited I got, and when I got myself a copy, I dropped everything else I was doing and commenced straight away.
Goodness gracious me! I don't think I've ever enjoyed a novel this much for a few months now. This is definitely one of those rare YA books that will be imprinted in your mind for a long while right after reading, that kind where you'll still be thinking about certain aspects of it every now and then just to reenact the scenes in your mind. This is one of those truly scarce YA books where the romance is absolutely swoon-worthy and is able to make your heart go fucking haywire. I mean, I'm not usually a fan of YA romances - many of them are either contrived or just plain silly. But the one in The Winner's Curse?
Well, if I had to put it in little words, it would be this:
But strangely enough, even though I was highly entertained, the different aspects of the books were... kind of mediocre. There were a lot of things that didn't sit well with me and a lot of stuff the heroine did (or did not do x_x) that infuriated me, that my rating of a 4 was kind of a surprise as well. Has that ever happened to you? Where if you break down the components they're lacking, but as a whole, it's an awesome experience? I guess in this case, the entertainment trumped over the logical.
Basically, it's like this:
World-building = /scratches head
Kestrel = FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU VERY MUCH.
Arin = Come to me, meh babeh
Romance = Is it me or is it getting hot in here?
Plot = Eh.
Let me try to discuss these in greater detail...
Despite being coined as a "high fantasy", I found a bit of trouble imagining what the world of The Winner's Curse looks like, as we only have bits and pieces of the whole place. There's the unnamed Herrani-turned-Valorian city where we meet Kestrel and Arin; another unnamed city where the Emperor as well as the rest of the Valorians live, which you can only seemingly access by sea and it's three days of sail away; a mountain pass nearby, and; a land to the east where big bad savages live.
The crowd was thicker now, filled with the golden features of Valorians, hair and skin and eyes ranging from honey tones to light brown. The occasional dark heads belonged to well-dressed house slaves, who had come with their masters and stayed close to their sides.
The Herrani, before they were captured by the Valorians and turned into slaves, were rich and took pride in their music. They were a happy people who loved the seas and navigated the vast blue with ease, a feat that made them impossible to be invaded... at least for a while. Meanwhile, the Valorians were known for their beauty as well for their love of war - the same love that inspired them to find ways to conquer and plunder the Herrani lands and wealth.
Since then, the music-loving people have served Valorian needs left and right, their lives taken for granted, their worth demeaned.
Aside from these though, we don't really get much background information, which disappointed me a little bit because I appreciate it when I can effortlessly immerse myself in the world and visualize myself living in it, breathing the same air, feeling the same emotions. There just wasn't enough to make me really be in it. That's not a bad thing, really... many people have said they think this book has great world-building, so it's really a matter of preference. But having seen really great world-building (at least ones that reached my standards), the one in here just pales in comparison. It's still too vague for me. I'm sure this will change in the succeeding books, so I won't hold this against it. Thankfully, though, this didn't deter me from loving and adoring the other aspects of the novel.
Kestrel. Oh, Kestrel. I have quite a complicated relationship with this heroine, who I extremely disliked the majority of the time. As the daughter of the General who took the Herrani city by military tactics and force, you'd think she'd have enough backbone to carry her through, but wow, she was a complete doormat. She was meek and submissive and allowed everyone else to walk over her, her slave included.
“My god loves you?”
Arin’s gray eyes were narrow. His chest heaved once. Then he screwed his fury down, deep inside him. He held Kestrel’s gaze, and she saw that he was aware he had betrayed exactly how well he knew her language. In a determinedly even voice, Arin asked Jess, “How do you know he loves her?”
Kestrel started to speak, but Arin lifted a hand to stop her.
Shocked, Jess said, “Kestrel?”
“Tell me,” Arin demanded.
“Well . . .” Jess tried to laugh. “He must, mustn’t he? Kestrel sees the truth of things so clearly.”
His mouth went cruel. “I doubt that.”
“Kestrel, he is your property. Aren’t you going to do something?”
Those words, instead of making her act, were paralyzing.
I do not endorse slavery by any means. It's absolutely horrible , and I'm glad it's a distant thing of the past, but putting the context of the book in mind, technically speaking, she owns him. She bought him from the slave market for a hefty price, and yet every time he shows a bit of an attitude, it's like her mind recedes and she becomes a hollow and empty shell of herself. He makes demands, what the heck, give him what he wants without any second thoughts. He talks to you without any ounce of respect (which I would do as well, if I were in his shoes), what the heck, just sit there and let him talk shit (which I wouldn't do, if I were in her shoes). In fact, why don't you let him push you around and give him special privileges while you're at it?
Oh, wait. You did.
Granted, she had moments where she grew some spine, but honestly, they were few and far between and she would unfortunately go back to her being a doormat shortly after. What? You were betrayed? Be angry! Oh, you're angry, good. Anyone would be. That's right, show him who's the boss. What? You had the chance to warn your fellowmen of an attack but you choose to let them die? I mean, you could but you chose not to? FUCK YOU.
For such a self-proclaimed brilliant tactician/strategist, Kestrel does not try to use her brains much. There were times she'd show some initiation to take control of her situation, but then next thing you know, she would be all submissive again.
Her doormat ways aside, she is also terribly bland for a heroine, although I guess this is not a surprise given her undesirable behavior mentioned above. She moves, acts, and speaks as if her life has no meaning sometimes, and because of this, there were moments where it felt like the plot was going nowhere when it was her turn to give her perspective of the story. I don't think she is that bright as she proclaims herself to be. I do appreciate her moments of courage (which can be counted in one hand, to be completely and utterly honest), but overall, I've yet to really see her grow as a character. She needs some balls, man. Like serious balls.
For the meantime, here's a FUCK YOU from yours truly.
The slave was bad goods. He looked, Kestrel thought, like a brute. A deep bruise on the slave’s cheek was evidence of a fight and a promise that he would be difficult to control. His bare arms were muscular, which likely only confirmed the crowd’s belief that he would be best working for someone with a whip in hand. Perhaps in another life he could have been groomed for a house; his hair was brown, light enough to please some Valorians, and while his features couldn’t be discerned from Kestrel’s distance, there was a proud line in the way he stood. But his skin was bronzed from outdoor labor, and surely it was to such work that he would return. He might be purchased by someone who needed a dockworker or a builder of walls.
Arin. Oh, Arin. THAT Arin. I like him a lot. He's a slave, bought by the daughter of the General who took away the life he has known and thrown to another where he is constantly seen as an inferior. As a Herrani, he has a grudge against the Valorians, and it's a kind of grudge that's absolutely justified. He hates 'em, and knowing the pains he and his people has gone through, it's not hard to sympathize with him and share in his plight. He knows what's it like to truly suffer under the hands of your captors, and instead of wallowing in self-pity, he sucks it up and actually tries to do something about it.
He's the kind of guy who I imagine him would think something along these lines: "Wanna spit on me? Do it. Want me to work on hundreds of mundane errands every day just because you can? Gladly. Savor the feeling of superiority, because it'll end, and I'll have the last laugh."
Unfortunately, as much as he can be calm and collected, when it comes to his heritage and dignity as a Herrani, he becomes absolutely and completely sensitive. Like, no shit, he'd be more sensitive than me on my period. And I'm very sensitive at this time of the month. This in turn makes him talk back, glare, and do stupid shit that no one in their sane mind trying to start a revolution would do. Thankfully, his sorry excuse of a master (Kestrel) is an idiot, so he easily gets away with it when he tries to show an attitude, but there is this one time he almost screwed up EVERYTHING he worked for because of a stupid book, and I swear, I wanted to punch him there and then. AND HE HAD THE GALL TO LOOK SHEEPISH ABOUT IT.
Aside from that, I don't really appreciate how the book tries to make him look like a good guy. I mean, he IS a good guy, no doubt about it, but it depends on where you stand. Are you a Herrani? Then of course he's a good guy, he's a hero even, he's a survivor, a brother, a family who fought for our freedom. In the perspective of the Valorians? He's a murderer who poisoned, killed and maimed their families and friends. This is what I liked about this book - that there is no black and white, that there are stuff in between that you need to take into consideration to get the full extent of the context. There is that saying that goes, "History is written by the winners." And truer words have never been spoken. History depends which party you've decided to side with. With that said, there were times the book tried to downplay Arin's doings against the Valorians by making some people close to the heroine survive and have him do everything to make it better for Kestrel. It felt like a lame way to give Kestrel reason to continue liking him despite what he did.
OTHER THAN THAT, YOU PUSH YOUR CAUSE ARIN CAUSE I BELIEVES IN YA
PLOT AND WRITING
The overall plot, good. Herrani, the slaves versus the Valorians, the captors. A fight for freedom. A fight for worth and for dignity. While the general grade is higher than average, the journey to get to the destination was a little... exhausting. There were some moments that I felt meaningless, mostly the gossip parties that Kestrel attended every once in a while. There were times the pacing was kind of slow, odd and out of place. An example the times she would be when she kept on thinking about Arin while she was being held prisoner by the very people her fellowmen oppressed, or those times when she's more concerned about her hands (cause she's a pianist, duh) than the rest of her being (like not wanting to fight hand-to-hand because like how can she play the piano now?!).
The writing, though? No complaints. Absolutely beautiful. Even though a lot of the events were kinda disjointed, Rutkoski had this inherent ability to connect things flawlessly and to make things flow really well. Prose is gorgeous to read and I never felt tired reading everything, even the longer paragraphs.
I'd be flat-out lying if I didn't say I loved the romance. There is no insta-love, but there is the usual "there's just something about him that attracts me to him... I just can't finger what it is..." although to be fair, the real serious emotional stuff happens later on. Even though I'm not the greatest and biggest fan of the heroine, I loved their small moments together that paved the way to the development of their romance, which is safe to say is full of fricking feels. There were so many scenes that showed the tension between the two, and I could feel it seeping from the pages while reading them. My throat would tighten, my heart would go aflutter, my stomach would be doing jumping jacks. SWOON ALL THE WAY BABY.
She imagined how he would sit, lean forward. How he would look in the glow of the carriage lantern.
“Survival isn’t wrong. You can sell your honor in small ways, so long as you guard yourself. You can pour a glass of wine like it’s meant to be poured, and watch a man drink, and plot your revenge.” Perhaps his head tilted slightly at this. “You probably plot even in your sleep.” There was a silence as long as a smile. “Plot away, Kestrel. Survive. If I hadn’t lived, no one would remember my mother, not like I do.”
Kestrel could no longer deny sleep. It pulled her under. “And I would never have met you.”
It didn't help that they were pretty much star-crossed lovers. She was a Valorian. He was a Herrani. History has pretty much automatically made them enemies. It was probably written in the skies. And yet, they loved each other. They cared for each other. And it wasn't a love that simply happened; it was a love that they've both chosen. And it was so bittersweet :'(
Of course he was certain that something was wrong.
Impossible. It was impossible to love a Walorian and also love his people.
Arin was the flaw.
ALL. THOSE. EMOTIONS. MAN.
To summarize, I enjoyed this novel immensely as a whole. I was highly entertained, and the romance made me a giddy schoolgirl who wanted the two to just get it on already. But, breaking it down into separate components, there were many underlying issues that I wasn't comfortable with, and try as I may to overlook them, they were simply too large to ignore and thus I had to rate accordingly. Yes, it was an engrossing book, but it's far from the best I've ever read. I guess it's simply a matter of preference how they will take the heroine and the plot, but my final verdict for this would be a 3.5.
Not a bad book by any means. Highly entertaining though, for sure!