It began with a simple conversation, Marie Rutkoski explains:
. . . while sitting with my friend Vasiliki Skreta on a dark blue gym mat in the children’s playroom of our apartment building. Vasiliki is an economist, and we were discussing auctions. She mentioned the concept of the “winner’s curse.” Quite simply, it describes how the winner of an auction has also lost, because he or she has won by paying more than what the majority of bidders have decided the item is worth. Of course, no one knows what something might be worth in the future. The winner’s curse (at least, in economic theory) is about the very moment of winning, not its aftermath.
But what if the winner’s curse had an aftermath? What if the curse came in the form of a person? What indeed . . .
The Winner’s Curse, Marie Rutkoski. Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2014. 355 pgs. Age/Interest Level: 14-up.
Occurring in an alternative reality akin to Ancient Greece, Rutkoski’s setting is reminiscent of Till We Have Faces or the works of Rosemary Sutcliff. Like Sutcliff, her tone is darker and, while mythology and gods are mentioned, characters adhere to an inner moral code yet are godless.
Within this Greek-esque backdrop, the Valorian people are in the process of empire building. Kestrel, the daughter of a Valorian general, lives in a city on the outposts of the empire. Her city and its environs are home of the conquered Herrani people.
Early in the story, Kestrel purchases a Herrani slave at an auction and experiences? Yes, the winner’s curse. It is a curse that will haunt her through the rest of the story.
Kestrel felt a flicker of instinctive curiousity. Then she reminded herself bitterly that this was what curiosity had bought her: fifty keystones for a singer who refused to sing, a friend who wasn’t her friend, someone who was hers and yet would never be hers. . . .
Though the setting and premise of this story are intriguing, the actual story itself falters at times. This is partially due to its characters who, though interesting, fall flat. Unquestionably, Kestrel is passionate, but her famed intelligence seems much closer to common cleverness. Here is no biblical wisdom or discernment.
Naturally there is romance, but it is predicatable and Kestrel’s blindness to her growing attraction is slightly implausible. When a gorgeous girl, trapped by societal norms, buys a handsome slave, readers know that naturally, attraction develops! And, of course, there is more to the handsome slave than meets the eye.
Lovers of historical fiction set in ancient times will find The Winner’s Curse an intriguing read. Most intriguing of all is the ending. Rutkoski, an English literature professor, has created a story that falls short of the timeless work C.S. Lewis and Rosemary Sutcliff. Nevertheless, from a literary perspective, The Winner’s Curse offers more than the average YA novel.
Worldview/Moral Value 3.5 (out of 5)
Literary/Artistic Value 4 (out of 5)