Despite having been published in 2014, and receiving fairly modest attention at the time, The Winner's series has started doing the rounds on Booktube. I've seen two or three people review it and it's been garnering fairly positive reactions from readers who, like myself, aren't generally YA readers and wouldn't normally look twice at this book.
I've been getting through some pretty heavy reads in the last few weeks and felt like I needed a break and to get lost in some gratuitous, brainless entertainment. But I can't just pick up anything, I'm too fussy about tropes and stereotypes and shitty writing. So given that this seemed like a good balance between the two and I bit the bullet and ordered all three books.
The Winner's Curse took me two days to finish and is a fast easy read. It follows the stupidly named Kestrel, the daughter of a General of the Valorian Army. The Valorian people are in the midst of expanding a vast empire across their world and Kestrel and her father live in the recently occupied Herrani territory. Ten years prior to the start of the book the Valorians conquered the Herrani people, enslaved them and now live in houses that used to be theirs.
At the start of the book Kestrel and her friend Jess find themselves accidentally at the slave market and watch the auctions. A young man with blacksmith skills and who, supposedly, sings beautifully is put up for auction and, despite never buying a slave before, Kestrel bids for him and wins.
The story then follows the two of them navigating the world of high society and gossip that Kestrel lives in, as well as their relationship with each other and the conflict between their two people.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It had some really interesting ideas in it and the characters were multi-faceted and complex, particularly Kestrel. She was a 'strong female character' in that she was flawed, made mistakes but also had admirable qualities. She's a completely shit fighter (which I enjoyed because far too many YA heroines are kickass for no obvious reason) but is able to best people with her sly and perceptive nature. She is kind and fair to the slaves in her household but, as the narrative points out, how kind can you be to someone while you keep them as a slave.
This book did slip into some cheesy eye-roll YA moments. There are plot points that are stupidly convenient. Several times she is privy to important meetings between people who regard her as their enemy. Why is she allowed to sit in on these meetings when her knowing this information could be their downfall? There is also an awful lot of 'What is this feeling? Why did I do this? "She felt something in her chest that she refused to name" bullshit hand-wringing which is just annoying, woman just admit you fancy him it's cool. Also there is an 'attempted sexual assault' scene that is just stupid and predictable and something out of a bad fanfiction.
That said there was a lot going on in this book and some really interesting concepts and ideas were explored. I would love to know more about other parts of the Valorian empire and the military which is not gender specific. There are hints of an interesting mythology and spirituality in the Herrani people but it's never more than hinted at. Unfortunately because the book is preoccupied with the plot moving forward we don't get much in the way of world building, or exploration of the moral ambiguities of some of the characters and the choices they make. That was a shame, as even a little more discussion about this would have added some richness to the book. This is the first in a trilogy so perhaps I will find the world expands later.
I don't know the extent to which I'd recommend this book. It was good fun, I did enjoy it and it seems to be one of the better YA fantasy romances out there. However it does still suffer from the family traditions of love triangles, dropping the bulk of the story for angsty love and bland side characters. I also feel the last third of the novel let down the rest of it. The ending is good but the way we travelled to get there was a strange decision to make and felt like the author was trying to make a literary point and failing terribly. I think it's still worth a read if you enjoy the genre, or if you're looking to zone out for a bit and think about pretty dresses and cute boys.
Let me know if you've read this book and what you thought!