Overhead shot of white blonde girl in a pink ballgown, with her right hand raised to her forehead in anguish

About the Book

Title: The Winner’s Curse (The Winner’s Trilogy #1)
Published: 2014
Series: The Winner's Trilogy
Swoonworthy Scale: 9

Cover Story: The Pain of Fancy Dress
BFF Charm: Platinum Edition
Talky Talk: Devourable
Bonus Factors: World Building, Strategy, Kickass Gram
Relationship Status: Going to the Chapel

Cover Story: The Pain of Fancy Dress

I know, I KNOW. Whenever I recommend this book to people — which is pretty dang often, since I campaigned to make it an FYA Book Club pick — this convo inevitably happens: 

Skeptical Friend:  
Hmm, really? I’m totally turned off by the cover alone.

But but [proceeds to YAngelize the shizz out of the book]

Skeptical Friend:


To this cover’s credit, the matte feel of my review copy is (literally) a neat touch. And it arrived in a cool package with a (cardboard) dagger.

I’ll even concede that I find the composition interesting — as a photo. But as a cover, it can be off-putting and also a bit misleading. There’s only one Fancy Dress event in the book — not that there’s anything wrong with books full of Fancy Dress events, but this is just not that book — and at no point does the heroine succumb to a migraine-induced fainting spell. Or re-enact the Maya Rudolph scene in Bridesmaids.

I’d wish the cover designer for better luck next time, but — well, I’ve seen what the sequel looks like.

The Deal:

The Valorian Empire’s powers are far-reaching — and oppressive, to the enslaved Herrani. Kestrel is the daughter of the highest-ranking general in the army, but even she can’t avoid the fate of all Valorian women of age: join the military or get married. (What a plethora of choice! How does one ever choose?)

Gifted as she is in military strategy, Kestrel’s true passion actually lies in music. It’s what compels her to impulsively buy a slave sold as a singer at an auction. But the price Kestrel pays for him is far steeper than she could have imagined. 

[Edit 2022/01/30: It’s been a long time since I’ve read this book, so I’m really not sure how I would feel about the slavery angle nowadays.]

BFF Charm: Platinum Edition

BFF platinum charm

HELL YEAH, I’d love to be BFFs with Kestrel. If ever you needed a cunning strategist on your side, she’s your girl. Fortunately for the rest of the world, Kestrel’s powers are mostly reserved for low-stakes games, so you just know she’d be a great teammate for board game parties. She’s also fiercely loyal to the ones she loves, and she constantly challenges the status quo of her restrictive society. Kestrel sure ain’t no wallflower; girlfriend is a v. active player in her own story.

Swoonworthy Scale: 9

OK, so meeting a guy at a slave auction wherein you are a bidder and he is for sale — not exactly an ideal meet cute. And Kestrel only knows him as the slave until Arin chooses to reveal his name to her. Then there’s the whole ownership dynamic; Kestrel might be a benevolent slave owner, but she’s still a slave owner. To say these two get off on the wrong foot is def. an understatement. 

Which makes the growth of Kestrel and Arin’s relationship that much more satisfying. As they went from enemies to friends, they straight up EARNED my fervent support. I really believed their connection, just like I really felt their relationship put my heart through the wringer. (No, really. My heart felt like it was getting twisted and yanked every which way, even upon re-reading.)

So yeah. I ship it. I SHIP IT A LOT.

“Now kiiiiiiiiiiiss”

Talky Talk: Devourable

I’ve never considered fantasy to be a fave genre, but this book makes me think that maybe I just haven’t read enough GOOD fantasy. The world constructed within these pages is wholly immersive; the characters are complex, and the dialogue feels unique to the setting without being pretentious.

My only complaint with Marie Rutkoski’s writing is that the plot is so intriguing that I have to remind myself to slow down and enjoy all the gorgeously crafted details. Oh, make that three complaints: I have to wait over a year for all the books to be out?! And then the series will be over?! Yup, I totally have an incurable case of TEABS (and a bit of anticipatory TEABS, too).

Bonus Factor: World Building

Screenshot from Lord of the Rings with Frodo looking out at a magical city

Partially inspired by ancient Greco-Roman history, this richly imagined world is rooted in the bitter history between the ruling Valorians and the conquered Herrani. (Bonus points for names that don’t sound completely ridic.)

Bonus Factor: Strategy

Man, you’ve got to stay on your toes in Valoria. War might be its lifeblood, but battles of the mind are just as crucial. And Kestrel has one of the sharpest brains there is. 

Bonus Factor: Kickass Gram

Emily Gilmore from Gilmore Girls looking unimpressed

Once a Herrani slave, the nurse Enai was granted freedom at Kestrel’s request. Enai might be the beloved sassy mother figure that Kestrel never had, but there’s no denying that their relationship was only made possible because of slavery.

Relationship Status: Going to the Chapel

CUSS YEAH, I liked it so I put a ring on it. This book and I still have a long road ahead of us, but I’m ready to declare that I’m ALL IN. I’m even willing — nay, insisting that we invite everybody to join us in our holy matrimony. (This is the FYA Book Club selection for February, so SAVE THE DATE, Y’ALL.)

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I received neither money nor froyo for writing this review (dammit!). The Winner’s Curse is available now.

Mandy (she/her) lives in Edmonton, AB. When she’s not raiding the library for YA books, she enjoys eating ice cream (esp. in cold weather), learning fancy pole dance tricks, and stanning BTS. Mandy has been writing for FYA since 2012, and she oversaw all things FYA Book Club from 2013 to 2023.