Friday, March 27, 2015

What We're Reading: The Winner's Trilogy

The "winner’s curse" is an economic principal that described how the winner of any auction open to bidding, in the instant that he wins, also loses because he has paid a higher price for an item or service than the other participants are willing to pay. It is a fascinating idea, and one that is intriguingly explored by Marie Rutkoski in The Winner’s Curse.

Lady Kestrel, the daughter of General Trajan, is used to high risks, and equally high stakes. While she benefits greatly from her position in society as the only child of the highest ranking general of the Valorian army, she also chafes at the rules and customs she must observe. Her occasional forays into the city without an escort keep people talking, as do her high-stakes games of Bite & Stine (a tile game at which Kestrel is nearly impossible to beat) which she plays with cunning and a skill few can match. Now that she is 17, Kestrel is expected to choose either to enter the military as a soldier, or to marry. Even though she shows no aptitude as a fighter (and tremendous skill as a strategist), there are no other options. And neither of these choices would allow Kestrel to pursue her true passion, music (which is of almost no value to her warrior culture). But it is music that informs and influences her every decision, such as the impulsive choice to bid on Arin, a Herrani slave, at auction because he might be a singer. The bidding progresses, and by the end, Kestrel bids far more than even the auctioneer had hoped. But if Arin is a singer, he is one who refuses to sing. Kestrel justifies and rationalizes the purchase because Arin is also a skilled blacksmith, which will be of use to her father. But who and what else, exactly Arin is (and isn’t) is not clear. As time passes, the only thing that becomes clear is that the price Kestrel paid for Arin will not begin to cover what that purchase will cost both of them.

In The Winner’s Curse, Marie Rutkoski, author of "The Kronos Chronicles" and The Shadow Society, explores the concepts of freedom, confinement, and the interplay between the two extremes. Both Kestrel and Arin long for freedom, Kestrel from the rigid conformity and demands of her culture, and Arin from the servitude imposed on his. Both characters are willful, prideful, intelligent and--to varying degrees--damaged. The relationship portrayed is not one that develops instantaneously at their first meeting, but rather one that grows over time as each character becomes more comfortable and shares more of who they are and what they want. They are a perfectly matched pair of star-crossed lovers from worlds so very different there may be no way to bridge the distance, and part of that distance is of their own making. Both characters block their own paths to freedom and happiness by clinging to the comfort of what is known and considered normal (and several times through their own sheer stubbornness). The Winner’s Curse is a frustrating book, much like Gone With The Wind, Wuthering Heights, or other tragic romances, in which the reader wishes he could explain to the characters that happiness is just within their reach if they don’t destroy the opportunity in front of them.

The world Rutkoski creates is lush and well defined, with societal mores, cultural rules, and believable differences between the two cultures represented in the plot. Rutkoski's writing is superb, as it was in her earlier works, making The Winner's Curse an enjoyable read!

Editor's note: The next book in "The Winner's trilogy," The Winner's Crime, was recently published. Burbank Public Library owns both books, which you will find in the Young Adult section at the Central and Buena Vista libraries. (The new book will be in YA New Books!)

For another (equally laudatory) opinion, read teen librarian Anarda's review on the YA blog.

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