Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The Winner's Curse," by Marie Rutkoski

The Protagonist: Kestral Trajan. The daughter of Valorian's most celebrated general, she's under extreme pressure to either marry or enlist in the military. Her life is hard.
The Rub: But not quite as hard as those of the slaves she owns. Awkward.

YA Tropes Checklist:
  • Parents Who Just Don't Understand
  • 1 Poor Little Rich Girl
  • 1 Boy From the Wrong Side of the Tracks Chains
  • 1 Airhead Best Friend
  • 2 Underappreciated Musical Talents
  • 1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
  • 2 Villains Who Want to Bang the Heroine
  • Love Made Me Do It
The Word: I underestimated this novel. Blame it on the woozy, swoony prom-dress cover. Poor little blond girl in a ball gown, whatever shall you do? What love triangles shall you muck up? What doorways will you adorably trip through to be caught by the hero? This cover is terrible, no doubt about it. However, The Winner's Curse pulls fewer punches and hides sharper edges of commentary than I would have guessed. 

Kestral is the pampered-but-unsatisifed daughter of a successful Valorian general living in the occupied Herrani capital city. Ten years ago, the warlike Valorians conquered the artistic, sophisticated Herrani and the survivors of that war now work as slaves in the houses they once owned. 

While out walking, Kestral accidentally winds up at the slave auction, where a slave named Smith is being sold. Intrigued by his spirit and misery that seem to mirror her own, she defies her better judgement and purchases him at an exaggeratedly high price. Despite being remarkably snarky, defiant, and disobedient for a slave, Smith (whose real name is Arin) becomes almost like a friend to Kestral, as they each learn more about each others' people. 

However, unbeknownst to Kestral, Arin is an agent for the underground Herrani revolution working to overthrow the brutal Valorian yoke and restore Herrani freedom once and for all. Can these two crazy kids overcome their teeny tiny ideological differences?

I was quite impressed by the way this novel handled slavery. Kestral is depicted as someone who, while uncomfortable when confronted by the realities of slavery, continues to benefit from it. Ideologically she recognizes that slavery probably sucks, but she can't imagine a life without it and often catches herself ignoring or downplaying it in order to make herself feel better. When we live in a world where fruit is picked by underpaid migrant workers and sneakers are made by child labour and iPods are assembled by starving factory workers - are we any different?

When Kestral's freed nanny-slave Enai dies, Arin mocks her grief by demanding if she even knew who Enai's real family, real children were. Kestral doesn't - she was too afraid to even ask. I appreciated that the author never made the heroine a naive saint who was always good to her slaves. People who contribute to an abusive system still possess the capacity for individual good, and the capacity to eventually wake up and overthrow the abusive system. But that capacity doesn't whitewash their flaws. 

I also loved that Kestral wasn't a super-heroic Katniss character who is miraculously adept at scaling walls and killing bad guys. Instead of being a warrior, she's a strategist - an underused role for women in YA. I really appreciated this - she uses her power in more subtle and original ways.

Rutkoski uses a deft hand that highlights points of insight without getting mired in rhetoric, and the story moves swiftly and smoothly, but I could perhaps have preferred a little more depth to the worldbuilding and the history. Instead, the author uses coding (the Valorians are Romans, the Herrani Greeks) to do her worldbuilding for her, and that felt like a cheat.

All in all, a surprisingly solid read.

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