Navessa's Reviews > The Winner's Curse

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
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did not like it
bookshelves: books-everyone-loves-but-i-hate, fantasy-light, insufferable-mc, love-triangle-hell, poorly-executed-strong-theme, romance, trolls-love-me, young-adult
Recommended to Navessa by: Everyone
Recommended for: No one


Very seldom do I give only a single star to books that I've read from cover to cover. Usually I reserve such a low rating for ones with such abominable writing, such shallow, one-dimensional characters, such poorly constructed plots, that I can't bear to finish them.

The writing in this is good. Sure, it's not the kind of prose that sweeps the reader up and transports them fully within the pages, but it gets the job done. The characters are not one-dimensional. In fact, throughout the first half of the book, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the slow revelations of their depths. The plot is there too; star crossed lovers, a power-hungry empire, a slave rebellion.

What's not to like? As you can no doubt tell by glancing at the length of this review, a lot.

Consider this a one-star of protest. I take issue with the main theme in this book, slavery, and how poorly it was handled.

Let me give you some background so that you might understand how negatively this impacted me. My father, at heart, is a historian. He knows more about the local history of the area I grew up in than any other person alive. This is not a boast, it is a simple fact.

He's spent the last twenty years gobbling up every firsthand account of the Algonquian tribes and the horrors visited on them that he can find. He knows the names of the fur trappers that used to trade with them, of the soldiers that massacred them, of the Jesuit priest who doffed his robes and donned a set of hides as he fought alongside them. He knows the lives and deaths of countless European settlers. He's spoken to their descendants. He owns their cast-iron cookware. He's rowed thirteen miles up the nearly impassable river they lived on in an exact replica of the type of small boat that (irregularly) delivered the goods their lives depended upon. Why? To see what it was like.

Yeah, I grew up with that…

From an early age, he impressed upon me that the only way to truly learn about history was to ignore everything my schoolbooks taught me, and instead read firsthand accounts and piece together what happened for myself, instead of blindly believing the glorified tales of the victors.

When I was in middle school, we studied the Civil War, and my father pressed a thick, threadbare, vellum-wrapped book in my hands entitled Twenty-Two Years a Slave, Forty Years a Free Man by Austin Steward. It was the first of the many auto-biographies I read written by former slaves and abolitionists.

I will never forget what I found within their pages. And because of that, I will never be able to turn a blind eye when this subject is poorly handled.

Kestrel, the female lead in this book, is the daughter of a general who conquered a people for his empire. Not because said people were threatening theirs, not because they posed some danger to the world at large, but because of greed. The Herrani had what the empire wanted, and so they took it, slaughtering, raping and enslaving the populace along the way.

These atrocities are barely mentioned. One of the few accounts we're given is a vague reference to the male lead's sister being raped, because, and I quote, she was "too beautiful for her own good". I'm not even going to touch that one, because it would turn this review into a goddamn thesis paper.

In the beginning of the book, we're led to believe that Kestrel is different from her conquering father. We find her at a slave market, with a friend who shrugs off the auction they're about to witness. We're given this tidbit,

"…the girl's shrug reminded Kestrel that there were certain things they couldn't discuss."

In context, you're led to believe that this is because they don't see eye to eye on slavery. She proves this to be true, by buying a slave. Oh wait, no, that doesn't prove that she's different, does it? In fact, it implies she's of the same mindset; that it's okay to BUY AND SELL HUMAN BEINGS AS IF THEY ARE CATTLE.

*deep breath*

But there's still a chance that she bought him with good intentions. That she plans to immediately free him. Har. Nope, she bought him because,

"The stony set of the slave's shoulders reminded her of herself..."

Yuuuup. You see, Kestrel is a self-centered asshole. She also doesn't give a single fuck that her father helped to subjugate an entire race of people. She doesn't give a single fuck that they wait on her hand and foot, and that she doesn't even know how to light a goddamn fire on her own. Sure, every now and then she feels a pang of some undefined feeling radiating from the vestigial part of her brain where emotions like sympathy, empathy, and HUMAN FUCKING DECENCY emanate from, but she's able to brush them off and ignore them.

Don't believe me? How about this gem, where the slave she bought informs her that the room they're sitting in isn't being used how it was meant to be,

"I know," he said, "because of this room's position in your suite, the cream color of the walls, and the paintings of swans. This was where a Herrani lady would pen her letters or write journal entries. It's a private room. I shouldn't be allowed inside."
"Well," said Kestrel, uncomfortable, "it is no longer what it was."

What a sociopathic remark. What a callous slap in the face. It no longer is what it was because she took it for her own and enslaved those who once lived within it. This is one of over a dozen examples I could have used here, by the way.

I'm sure that someone will argue with me that Kestrel is different, because she freed a slave. Yes, she freed a single slave, Enai. This woman took up the mantel of caretaker when Kestrel's mother died, and stepped in to fill her absence.

Let's not forget that Enai didn't have a choice in the matter, because SHE WAS A SLAVE. Want to know what happened to Enai's family during the invasion? Want to know if she had a husband? Children? Grandchildren? Can't tell you, because Kestrel, the selfish asshole, never bothered asking.

Oh, but she loves Enai. And according to Kestrel, Enai loves her. Because apparently there's such a thing as consensual love when one of the people is being/has been systematically subjugated by the other. How can you be free to love if you're not FREE?

And I have to point out the glaringly obvious here; Enai is filling the role of "the magical person". The exact skin color of the Herrani is never really defined within this book, but we're given to believe that they are the opposites of the Valorians who rule over them, dark-skinned where they are white, dark-haired where they are fair. If Enai were further described as black, she would be the definition of "the magical negro". It was Touré who said "Magical negroes exist so that the knowledge and spirit that comes from blackness can enlighten or redeem whites who are lost or broken."

Enai is only included in the story in two capacities, when Kestrel is broken or lost, and when Enai dies. She later (ONE MIGHT SAY MAGICALLY) appears to Kestrel in a dream during a crucial part of the story, when Kestrel most needs bolstering, and provides her with a tale from the Herrani people that gives Kestrel the strength she so desperately needs to carry on.

She is nothing but a stereotype, an overused plot device that needs to die a horrific death. She's included in the story to give reason to Kestrel's implied difference from her peers. Because apparently you need a close bond with a slave to understand HOW FUCKING WRONG IT IS.

*deep breath*

Every single other slave except for Enai and Arin, the man Kestrel bought at the auction, remains faceless and nameless. So don't try to tell me that this chick is different, not when I'm forced to bear witness to scenes like this one:

"You asked me to be honest with you. Do you think I have been?"
She remembered his harsh words during the storm. "Yes."
"Can I not ask the same thing of you?"
The answer was no, no slave could ask anything of her."

Let's talk about those slaves, shall we? Why is it, when slavery is one of the main themes of this book, that the brutality of it is only hinted at? Why do we only see the scar-covered torso of Arin, and don't hear the tales of how he earned them? Why do we only hear vague whispers of punishments but never see them carried through?

This book skirts everything that could be considered unsavory. It makes a mockery of the barbarous degradation, the soul-crushing dehumanization that these people face on a daily basis. Instead, every single Valorian you meet is basically a stand-up character when it comes to slaves. You never see a Valorian lift a hand to one. You never even see them threaten one.

And I have a theory about why. If you saw the Valorians for what they were, you would hate them, and that would take away from the climax of this book. You see, the slaves revolt, and this book paints them as the bad guys because it's told from Kestrel's point of view.

This is the point where I get really, REALLY angry. It's not enough that the atrocities they face on a daily basis are glossed over. It's not enough that they are the ones who have had their culture annihilated, a large chunk of their populace murdered, a large chunk of their female populace raped, and that those with the misfortune of living are now enslaved, but you want to paint them as the villains for RISING UP AGAINST THEIR OPPRESSORS?

No, fuck no.

This is where the book completely lost me. Up until this point, I had held out a small glimmer that Kestrel might have a revelation, that when she was captured and forced to do a single degrading act, she would understand what the Herrani had faced on a daily basis. She does not. Instead, she labels the man forcing her to *gasp* wash his feet as a monster. And she vows vengeance. With ZERO grasp of the irony.

That's right. How dare he. Doesn't he know his place? Why doesn't he just be a good little slave and go back to washing HER feet.

Near the 85% mark, something astonishing happens; in a single sentence, she finally regrets slavery. Yup. For no reason. She doesn’t have a revelation, she doesn't learn a goddamn thing, just thinks,

"It didn't matter that Arin's cause was just, or that Kestrel now allowed herself to see that."

And then she moves the fuck on. Because even though she's "allowed herself" to see that slavery is a Bad Thing, she's not going to do a goddamn thing to help, because she could never fight her own father. In fact, she plans to escape and alert the Valorian army (which is away slaughtering and subjugating another people). Oh, and yeah, she knows that this will lead to the wholesale genocide of the Herrani, but thems the brakes.

Fuck you, Kestrel. Seriously, I hope you slowly burn to death in the second book.

FYI, she never, not once, voices aloud that slavery is bad. That her father is bad. That the empire is an evil, power-hungry demon sucking the life from (what's left of) the free world.

I could literally write another two thousand words about my issues with how this was handled, but as I've already written two thousand words, I'll spare you from that. You're welcome. Just be warned that if you come on this review trolling me, I took a LOT of notes and highlighted entire passages to back up the arguments I make here.

In short, this book is nothing but a typical YA love story. It is completely lacking in any depth beyond that. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I almost never read YA anymore, because while yes, I know this is "just fiction", I can't seem to turn my brain off enough to accept that fact.

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Reading Progress

February 4, 2014 – Shelved
December 12, 2014 – Started Reading
December 12, 2014 –
page 1
0.28% "Yes, I've decided to wade back into YA. Pray for me."
December 12, 2014 –
50.0% "DO LIKE."
December 12, 2014 –
66.0% "I have some serious gripes about how slavery is portrayed in this. Or more accurately, how it isn't. You can't glance over it like this, you can't skirt the soul-crushing brutality of it. What bothers me most is using the absence of these truths to cast the rebelling slaves as the bad-guys and those who spent the past decade subjugating and dehumanizing them as the victims. DO NOT LIKE."
December 13, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 150 (150 new)

message 1: by Pam (new) - rated it 1 star

Pam ☼Because Someone Must Be a Thorn☼ Tee Yep. Totally pathetic. I'd nominate it for the worst book of the year.

Navessa Oh wow, nice to see that I'm not alone.

message 3: by Pam (new) - rated it 1 star

Pam ☼Because Someone Must Be a Thorn☼ Tee We are few in number, but those of us that dislike this book, dislike it a lot.

Navessa I noticed. Over 200 of my friends that have read this, and I'm the only one to one-star it.


message 5: by O.R. (new) - added it

O.R. Oh no and I already bought it. This book will piss me off.

Navessa Ach, I hope it works out better for you than it did me.

message 7: by Brigid (new) - added it

Brigid G.R.O.S.S. I think I know too much about slavery to like this book.

message 8: by Angela (new) - added it

Angela Wow. I was so looking forward to reading this one day because so many of my friends have enjoyed it, but UGH. What the fuck with that MC?

Excellent review!

...because while yes, I know this is "just fiction", I can't seem to turn my brain off enough to accept that fact.

^^Yes! This is my problem most of the time too.

Navessa @ Brigid: Welcome to my hell. It doesn't help that we have so much racial tension in my country right now. It doesn't help that I recently watched, and was ruined by, Twelve Years A Slave. It doesn't help that I've actually heard white people in my office denying that racism still exists. *grinds teeth*

@ Angela: Yes, exactly. I'm struggling with it more and more. And my pet peeves have only gotten worse. Soon I'll be forced to re-read nothing but favorites for fear of hating anything new I attempt.

message 10: by Brigid (new) - added it

Brigid HEHEHEHE. Oh pathetic naive idiots. I live in a place where fucking SURPRISE: 90% people are racist but in denial about it. There's a lot of police incidents here.

message 11: by Liz (new) - rated it 1 star

Liz Nope, you are not alone! ;) Great review! And this book's execution of the slavery topic was...horrendous. *facepalm*

Navessa @ Brigid: Ugh. Just...ugh.

@ Liz: Woot! Thanks! I put it down around 10:30 last night because I was so pissed. Then I woke up at frigging 2 am thinking about it and had to finish it out and write my review this morning. I may add more when the sleep deprivation wears off. I just had so much to say about how badly it was portrayed. I didn't even get into Arin's victim mentality, or Kestrel's total lack of empathy for the freed slaves. And the ending; too little, too late.

Hershey I regret ever buying this book but I am glad I still haven't touched its atrocious pages. Fantastic review!

message 14: by Navessa (last edited Dec 13, 2014 05:45AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Navessa Thanks, Hershey. I was wholly unprepared for what I found within its pages. None of the reviews I read mentioned how badly the slavery was handled. And I read a LOT of reviews


Alienor ✘ French Frowner ✘ Great thoughful review and thanks for the save! I had similar issues with For Darkness Shows The Stars that everybody seems to love - and where the main character, as not as rude as that one, accepts slavery as normal, even if that's more in a Scarlet way - I still hated that.

message 16: by Navessa (last edited Dec 13, 2014 06:01AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Navessa Aaaand I'll be adding that to my "reviews say nay" shelf. I can't with this theme.

message 17: by Angela (new) - added it

Angela Shit. I just lost two books. =/

Navessa Hey, think of the bright side, Ange. That's two books less to waste your precious reading time on ^_^

message 19: by Angela (new) - added it

Angela That's a really good silver lining. :D

message 20: by Leah (new)

Leah Alvord You know, it's funny because I read all the brilliant reviews, and even added it to my TBR … and I still always had this inkling that I was not going to like it. Every time I glance at that cover I get this feeling of, "Mmm, nope," and I move on. This review completely justifies my instincts. Thank you.

Navessa Do you think it had anything to do with the beautiful girl in the beautiful dress on the cover? That tends to be a bad omen...

Alienor ✘ French Frowner ✘ Navessa wrote: "Aaaand I'll be adding that to my "reviews say nay" shelf. I can't with this theme."

Yeah. Same here. We can't throw slavery in a book and handle it that bad - or, as For Darkness, use a divine curse to explain that the slaves are too simple-minded to care of themselves as a justification for slavery. I can't even.


message 24: by Angela (new) - added it

Angela Wait...what?

I'm SO glad I added that to my nuh-uh list now.

Alienor ✘ French Frowner ✘ Navessa wrote: "OH, WHAT THE EVER LOVING FUCK"

Yes because in that post-apocalyptic world, God cursed the major part of the population because they used too much science. And made them "Reduced". While our wonderful heroine comes from people who've been saved because they were so fucking PURE, so that's normal she has slaves and she's just helping them (and of course, she loves them and THEY LOVE HER, that's why I talked about a Scarlet syndrom). UGH.

I saw ONE review talking about that issue. *facepalm*


Alienor ✘ French Frowner ✘ I feel you here. That kind master thing just pissed me off. Slaves don't want to be freed, nope, that's too awesome to be with her. Yes because freedom is such an overrated thing.

message 28: by Ana Luisa (last edited Dec 13, 2014 06:45AM) (new) - added it

Ana Luisa Thank you so much for this review. Seriously. If there's one thing I can't put up with in books is handling issues such as racism and slavery badly. So no, thanks. This is going to the ‘thanks but no thanks’ shelf.

Navessa NP. I'm glad to have shed light on the issue.

message 30: by Cathryn (new) - added it

Cathryn Thank goodness I haven't bought this or For Darkness yet. I have never enjoyed the slave love story and I've read several in the HR genre. I could never figure out why but you pinpointed it exactly. How can you have love without freedom? How do you know it's love and not just Stockholm Syndrome. I don't like love stories where there's a big power imbalance.

message 31: by Angel (new) - added it

Angel Wow. Thank you, seriously, for saving me from wasting my time.

Navessa @ Cathryn: Exactly. I will never be able to enjoy one either, for that very reason.

@ Angel: You're welcome.

message 33: by Elle (new) - rated it 2 stars

Elle Thanks for your great review. I always have a tough time reading books with slavery in them (yes, because I'm a person of color, lol) and no one seems to understand that from my POV. P.S. your dad rocks. I'd love to have someone like him educate my husband. Seriously.

Navessa You're very welcome, Elle. To me, slavery is in the same category as genocide. They should ever be glossed over or mentioned in passing. Or worse, used to merely set the backdrop for a romance.

*grinds teeth*

Thanks about my dad. I tend to agree that he rocks, but then, I'm obviously biased, lol. I have two brothers and two sisters, and we all grew up with lessons like the one I mention in the review. It's made us all deep thinkers with strong opinions about EVERYTHING. Our family debates are epic. >.<

message 35: by Tiz. (new)

Tiz. T. It is an interesting rewiev for what it looks an interesting book. It is just that, well, on an historical point of view, Kestrel's behavior is 100% accurate, isn't it?
I mean, I love history as well. And if you read any, say, Roman or Greek novel (or what little of their first-hand account we have left), you see exactly that kind of behaviour from Romans/Greeks toward the other population. It was a "correct" mindframe for that time period and that kind of education. If not 100%, then 99.9% of Romans were totally in favor of slavery. The very idea of a domus releasing all his slaves (in life) was so laughable that nobody mentioned it.
And Romans did the same, too. Subjugate other population (because they were here, and because the other population would have merrily done the same if possible, that was just how the World WAS) and enslave the ones who opposed them. That is it.
In such a sense, a Roman, pre-christianity character who is totally against slavery should have a VERY compelling reason to think so. More likely, they would have simply believe what everybody else did: IE that it was the right of the stronger to enslave the weaker, and Romans were the strongest of all (yes, even ex-slaves thought so, for the greatest part).
I am not saying this is right, just that it was like this. It doesn't seem to me that Kestrel is a badly-written character in such a light... Not a good person, but not badly written o.o

Navessa I hear what you're saying, and if Kestrel's character had been portrayed with that mindset, it would have been understandable. But, she wasn't. She was put "above" her fellow Valorians from the beginning. This was all tell and no show. We were told that she thought differently about slavery, but never shown that she did. To me, that makes her a badly written character.

message 37: by Pam (new) - rated it 1 star

Pam ☼Because Someone Must Be a Thorn☼ Tee Actually, the book reminded me of several smutty romances (tone, plotting, character development-ornot) without the smut :(

I didn't get the feel of any historical accuracy and the idea that the MC would just suddenly find herself at an auction and just have to have a recalcitrant dirty slave standing in a pit is ridiculous.

Navessa Huh, I think I was so aggravated by other things that I missed that, but now that I think back on it, I definitely see what you're saying.

message 39: by Tiz. (new)

Tiz. T. Oh yes, I see. Well ugh. It would have made more sense -and be more interesting- to have made her simple a child of her people and time and then to be shoked by the slave rebellion. A bit a "Lolita-like" situation. That would have been interesting indeed. A lost chance alas :\

Navessa Yup. Womp, womp :(

message 41: by Devon (new) - added it

Devon Strachan Littchick I think you should write a book about growing up with your father, I'd read that. lol seriously. Good and bad, You learned a lot. From what you described, I think you know how unique that is.

Navessa LOL. It'd be a lot of me griping about being cold and miserable in the middle of the frigging wilderness >.<

There'd be some pretty good stuff in there about why my second oldest sister and I are now both vegans too. Seriously, the stuff he fed us just because it was "edible"


And yet, I wouldn't change a thing, because I do know how lucky I was.

message 43: by Laura (last edited Dec 14, 2014 09:53PM) (new)

Laura Wow. Amazing review! Thank you for saving me from this book which would have made me RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGE.

I may get hate for this, but I honestly don't think people should write about issues like slavery unless 1) You are part of the marginalized group being paralleled in your writing or 2) You are fully prepared to consult many many people of that group, read primary sources, etc. Otherwise, you won't understand all the nuances and complexities that come with institutionalized racism. And this goes for writing about any form of oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.)

I say this because 90% of the time when someone from a very privileged background writes about these issues WITHOUT the proper, in-depth research and consultation first, they end up over-simplifying racism/sexism/etc. And then they write Disney Pocahontas-esque stories where "both sides are equally bad" and "fighting back will make you just as evil as they are", all the while going to see Mockingjay Part 1 in theatres and crying in sympathy with Katniss' cause.

Navessa Laura. Yes. So much yes in your comment.

*fistbump of solidarity*

message 45: by O.R. (new) - added it

O.R. I know the author talked about writing about slavery on her twitter. I only remember that she said her friend asker her if she really wants to touch such issue and she said yes that she will need to be very sensitive, etc.
But, better to check for her actual answer, I read it a long time ago so maybe I confused something.

message 46: by Navessa (last edited Dec 15, 2014 06:33AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Navessa Hmmm, mayhaps I'll look it up. It seems that instead of doing research, she chose to ignore it entirely, because we're basically presented with "there are slaves" and then given little to no detail about their lives, their pasts, their culture, their hardships, etc, which might be fine, if part of the story wasn't told from the perspective of a slave. -_-

message 47: by O.R. (new) - added it

O.R. I think that by trying to write little to not make it hard for young readers she ignored it too much, possibly.

Navessa Seems to be the case. :(

Navessa Which is odd to me, because we learn about slavery (at least in this country) in middle school. It's sort of patronizing to glance over it at this stage.

message 50: by Angela (new) - added it

Angela Though, honestly, slavery is pretty glossed over in schools too - at least it was in mine.

Almost everything I ever learned about history was from my own desire to know more and reading everything I could find at the library about it.

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