Book Review and Reflection: The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski

winners_curseIn the aristocratic society where Kestrel resides, superiority is a universal attribute and war is the national obsession. A key character once tells her, “A kestrel is a hunting hawk,” to which she replies unconvincingly, “Yes. The perfect name for a warrior girl.”

Being the only child of the highly respected Head General, Kestrel is required to enlist for the army before her twentieth birthday, when citizens of Valoria must decide to marry, or they will be drafted into the military. Kestrel has a knack for battle strategization, and her father wishes to work with her, despite the fact that if she enlists, she will have to give up playing the piano, which is viewed upon as a slave’s task. But is she really willing to sacrifice her one real passion—music—in order to please her father?

When she purchases a slave sold as a singer at a local auction, society begins to speak. They had anticipated that she would be in the army already, not being caught sneaking to and from the music room, in re a disinterested low class citizen.

Consequently, Kestrel and her father strike a deal: by spring, she will be married, or her father will get his way and she will be enlist; both forms of life-long commitment to which she is opposed. However, she decides that this agreement is better than the alternative scenario, and inevitably succumbs to his blackmail and manipulatively selective choice of words.

Even though the most frequently used idiomic cliché remains to be “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we all do, admittedly. [It has been scientifically proven that “within a tenth of a second of seeing a person for the first time, we have already made a series of judgments, not just about attractive they are, but how trustworthy they are, how assertive they are, how funny they’re going to be. We’re built to make these snap judgments about each other because at some point in our history, it was necessary for our survival to do so. And now, we build even more signals into the way we style our hair, the shoes that we wear, the socks, the clothes, tattoos and piercings, all a way to give cultural cues about what kind of person we are.” (Hank Green)].

We are all awash in this excessively unrectified and undoubtedly precedented subconscious appeal to the visually representative; we make all these initial and usually incorrect assumptions that are solely based on superficiality and appearance so often that we are no longer aware that we are being superficial. I was discussing this disappointing fault of our underling human lives with one of my closest friends not too long ago (a bit ironic, as we live in Orange County) and he laughed and then said to me: “It is not a question of whether we are superficial. It is a question of to what extent; myself, of course, being of no exception to this philosophy.” This is something, I think, that was conveyed as a theme throughout this book, as it was definitely something that I took away from it.

I, subsequent to my superficial examination, expected The Winner’s Curse to be an anticipatable, contemporized attempt to reconjure the simultaneous romance and tragedy of a Shakespearean drama lo the many, many authors that have tried—and failed—to do just that (although I did enjoy Kissing Shakespeare by Pamela Mingle and Still Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub). In a nutshell, this book is not a poor attempt to recreate the irreplaceable story of Romeo and Juliet like the cover so obviously suggests.

The Winner’s Curse contains love and violence; separation and companionship; countless lies and recoverable truths; manipulation and forgiveness. It addresses the differentiation between what is expected of us—or what people want for us—and what we, for ourselves and what we love, aspire to become. It is that passion; that thing that we do solely because we love doing it, despite what society tells us we should be doing instead, that shapes us into the individual person that we will one day become.

I am really appreciative that I was given the opportunity to “pre-read” an advance copy of this book just before it was published; thanks to Mission Viejo’s Teen Librarian, Allison, for supplying me with that opportunity. It’s now available in bookstores everywhere. I would also like to congratulate those of you who actually succeeded in reaching the end of this incessant rant and would like to apologize for its unnecessary length and depth.

-Danielle K., 8th grade


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