When I first heard about The Winner's Curse, it went straight into my mental "nope, NEVER going to read, seriously, nope" pile. Set in a fantasy world where a Rome-like militant people have conquered and enslaved their more artistic neighbors, the novel's quick summary reads like a slave and mistress love story. Throw in any of the common YA romance tropes, and the result sounded frankly offensive.
Yet people kept talking about this book, about how amazing it was, and since the cover was pretty and I wanted to know what the hype was about, I caved. And you know what? It's not at all what I expected. It's actually a pretty great and challenging read. Yes, romance is a central part of the story. But it's a lot darker and a lot more complicated than I initially imagined.
Our protagonist, Kestrel, is a rich general's daughter, being pressured to join the military or else marry within the year. She lives an incredibly privileged but restrictive life, and her closest bonds are with her fashionable best friend, and with the now-freed woman who raised her after her mother died. She's an interesting and engaging protagonist, but she's also (by necessity, I think) a problematic one. She benefits from life in a slave society, and she often overlooks the power dynamics that are in play. She sees herself as magnanimous, but she doesn't ever think that slavery should be abolished. Although she's very intelligent and insightful, her confidence in her own intelligence and insight often causes problems.
And, without spoiling the dramatic turns of the story, her choices are often very morally complicated. She could easily be seen as on the side of the villains, even though, from her perspective, she's on the side of good. Because the narrative raises some interesting questions, particularly about loyalties and about "good" vs "evil." If slaves are fighting for freedom, but those plans endanger the lives of Kestrel's dearest friends, is it wrong for her to try and stop them? If a just cause destroys things she loves, can she oppose it and fight for vengeance?
The other protagonist, Arin, is similarly complex and challenging. Although he was part of his country's noble class as a child, he is now a blacksmith, a slave, and a key part in a rebel movement that plans to destroy these invaders. Arin despises Kestrel and anyone like her, and although it's easy to see and sympathize with why, his actions also skirt the boundaries between good and bad. Is it OK for his actions to potentially kill many innocent others, if he's fighting for freedom for himself and his people? Are those others innocent, if they benefit from slavery, even if they're too young to have created it themselves? How far can his own justified anger-fuelled cruelty go before it becomes plain cruel? The book digs deep into these questions, and the answers are never as simple as they might at first appear.
Then, of course, we have the romance. No matter how you dress it up, Arin is Kestrel's slave, and thankfully, we're not treated to any "love at first sight," Romeo and Juliet forbidden love nonsense. In fact, there's a lot of anger and bitterness and even hatred going on at various points in this relationship, which starts, in part, because of Arin's inability to hide his contempt for Kestrel and everything about her life. In her boredom, Kestrel responds to his silent knowing looks with a challenge: beat me at my games, she says, and I'll answer any question truthfully. But if she beats him, he has to be similarly honest. Things of course become complicated when blunt conversations reveal more than intended, and the two begin to respect and even like one another. And that tentative alliance of course becomes twisted once the rebellion begins in earnest.
All in all, The Winner's Curse is a gripping, addictive and challenging read. I wasn't always entirely sure what I thought of it, and I'm sure many people will question whether it handles its difficult subject matter adequately, or gives too many emotional weight to the oppressor side of the story. But for a novel that's not only readable and compelling but also a rather tangled web of emotion and morality, it's definitely worth a try. The first five chapters are available for free download.