As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions. One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin. But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.
As a story, The Winner’s Curse has novelty in the fact that it takes romantic tropes and turns them around. Kestrel is a sharp-eyed, smart young girl, who has lived a life of luxury as the daughter of a Valorian General. Her life has been decided upon for her to choose – following her father’s step into the military or marriage. She has grown up wanting to prove herself to her father, but her talent lies not in warfare but in strategy. She has a quick mind, and ready wit – and plays the society game with ease. When Arin enters her life as her slave, though, she finds herself wanting to befriend him. His defiance of his slavery instills a bravery in her, and soon they grow close. He is hiding a pretty big secret, though, something that changes the very system of their kingdom. The unexpectedness of that change throws her, and she finds herself torn between loyalty to her father and her kingdom and affection for Arin and Herrani slaves.
The best thing I loved about the book is Kestrel herself. She is a dynamic character, and while her nature is not evident at the start, I soon grew to love her as a character. She is heroic, and pragmatic, not easily swayed by emotions and has a calculating mind. Despite her love for strategy, she prefers her music, something that is not generally common among the Valorians. Her relationship with her father was also interesting; I thought him to be cold and thinking she feels burdened by his expectations but it is also seen that they love each other immensely. About Arin, though, I am not so convinced as far as their relationship goes. He is a great character, full of life even in his despair, but his ambiguity about his feelings for Kestrel does add a touch of drama.
Moments I loved in the book were – her duel with Irex, the dream story (and what it means to the plot), Kestrel being such a good negotiator (!) and of course, the game she and Arin play. Their relationship is a slow burn, but honestly I am more interested in Kestrel’s journey, about the bargain she made at the end. The political scenario, the intrigue and the games – ah, I was definitely a fan of that. The writing was beautiful, and the story was certainly interesting, but overall, this book has been a little underwhelming for me. Maybe there was too much hype, but the pace was glacial around the middle, and was getting slightly repetitive. Overall, I would say, it is good and I am invested in the series.