*This review will contain spoilers!*
After requesting to review 'The Winner's Crime', the sequel to 'The Winner's Curse' (which is released later this week), and receiving it through NetGalley, I was beyond excited to get into this series. I'd been waiting to read the first book until closer to the second books release date, because I knew it was going to be one of those stories that I would fall in love with and absolutely fly through, and I was not wrong.
'The Winner's Curse' tells the story of Kestrel, daughter of General Trajan and a Valorian. The Valorians are the leaders of the society that they live in, ruling over the lower class Herrani, who are mostly employed as slaves in every household. Kestrel doesn't agree with buying slaves, even though she has been accustomed to receiving their services since she was a little girl, so when her best friend Jess drags her along to a slave auction she is apprehensive. However, when the auctioneer claims that the slave he is selling is a singer, Kestrel cannot resist bidding on him - she is a pianist, and her love for music is public knowledge, so when she pays fifty keystones for him (a stupendous price, from the reactions) she is both pleased and disgusted with herself. Her new slave, Smith, travels back to her home with her, where he settles in as a blacksmith in his trained role, but their relationship develops beyond that of a slave and his master.
I thought that this was going to be a completely gooey YA romance, but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't that at all. Yes, there is romance between Kestrel and her slave, whose name we learn is Arin, but it's actually rather understated; they don't have any contact displaying their feelings until over halfway through the novel.
Instead, this book is focused upon a strong heroine, and the difficulty of the life that you're born into. Kestrel is an amazing character: intellectual, unafraid and confident. When she faces death in a duel against one of the best fighters in the city, she uses her wit to save her life, and that's a definite positive - I love a woman who can fight back and play her cards when she needs to. She knows her weaknesses, so manages to play up her strengths, and that's a lesson everyone needs to learn: you don't need to be amazing at every aspect of something.
Kestrel has grown up as a Valorian of high society, with slaves to tend to her every need any time of the day and night, so she doesn't really understand how they feel about their entrapment. When her childhood nurse, Enai, dies, Arin cruelly tells her that there is no way that Enai could have loved her, because of the fact that she was employed to care for her and had lost her family. However, Kestrel cannot even slightly comprehend this fact, because she has grown up respecting and caring for Enai, not thinking of their relationship as that of slave and master. It's interesting, because how we are brought up definitely shapes our views of the world, and with Kestrel being the daughter of a general I'd expected her to be much more brutal in her behaviour towards the slaves, but throughout the novel she only seems to display a kind of muted respect towards them.
Similarly, Arin was quite young when the Valorians enslaved the Herrani, so he hasn't known much of life not as a slave, but he can still remember the home that he lived in and the family that were taken from him. He is a musician at heart, holding in his singing until he can no longer bear to, but he has been forced to work in mining and as a blacksmith - much tougher skills than he probably would have developed outside of the slave industry. His relationship with Kestrel is intriguing, because he really despises her at the beginning of the novel, but their developing feelings for each other really do prove that it is the person inside that counts - it doesn't matter what your background is, who your family are or how rich you are, if someone is going to love you, they will love you. In some ways you can compare the novel to 'Romeo and Juliet', with the forbidden romance and the impossibility of their love, but I think Marie's writing is so powerful that you can't help but root for them and it's definitely a deep seeded love.
I've never read a YA book with slavery as one of the topics, and I will admit that that was the only aspect that I wasn't completely sold upon. Kestrel was opposed to slavery at the beginning, however as we progressed throughout the novel we saw her relying upon her slaves more and more, which kind of contradicted her earlier opinion. Similarly, the terrible treatment of the Herrani by the Valorians who took the city isn't exactly expanded upon: the rape of Arin's sister is alluded to multiple times, but never directly dealt with, and I hope that gets tackled in the second novel. With Kestrel still torn between the sides, whether to go with the man that she loves or stay loyal to her people, it would be interesting to see how she would react if she had an idea of exactly how savage her own people could be.
Other than that aspect, I don't know why I loved this novel as much as I did, I just did. I really can't put my finger on any specific aspects, I just really enjoyed it and flew through it a lot faster than I'd expected I'd be able to. However, I just felt that the world was so vibrant and alive - every time a fighting tactic was discussed I could visualise it, which is something that doesn't normally happen to me in fantasy novels. I often find that I can't get into the world and I feel as though I'm missing something, but this world was so believable it really did seem like real world events were unfolding. The ending wasn't a dramatic cliffhanger, but I loved this book so much that I'm probably going to read the sequel in one sitting tomorrow. I will warn you, if you decide to read 'The Winner's Curse' you will need to set aside a good chunk of time; it sucks you in and does not let you go until you've finished it completely.