***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: beautiful writing and an engaging romance make this book seem epic on first reading, but the world-building, pacing, and some plot contrivances ultimately nagged at me too much to put it in the "future classic" category.
This is one of the most engrossing novels I've read so far in 2014. I listened to it on audiobook and was compelled to immediately pick it up on Kindle as well, to read it in print. I've been in a kind of cynical funk about YA novels lately, and it was refreshing to feel positive about one. Plus, I wanted to savor Rutkoski's prose visually. There are moments that are glorious, like when she describes a memory as a needle, sewing invisible patterns in Kestrel's mind, and when she describes the piano as a ship.
Rutkoski treats us as mature readers. She often shows subtle interactions between people without drawing unnecessary attention to them. As an example, there's the scene where Arin emotionally abuses Kestrel for grieving Enai's death, and then returns later with the lock of her hair from Enai's cottage. He has reconsidered the authenticity of Kestrel's mourning. He's telling her he was wrong, without saying a word. It's so moving to see Arin working out his own feelings without being told that's how he's feeling. Rutkoski trusts us to figure it out.
Unfortunately, that second reading is when the problems that I'd at first been willing to overlook became more glaring. After my initial flush of love for The Winner's Curse, as my mind played through the story again and again, I started to remember the things that felt less-strong about the book--things I glossed over as I was listening because I was so enthralled--and as I re-read it, those things popped out more clearly as problems.To become classics, books have to pass the re-reading test. The writing was still beautiful the second time around, and the romance was just as engrossing (in fact, I thought about Arin and Kestrel obsessively for several days after reading it), but the world began to make less sense, some of the secondary characters seemed flat, and the pacing felt rushed at the end.
The pacing. The pacing at the end of the book felt rushed compared with the beginning, and important events are not fully explored, starting especially with Kestrel’s escape in the boat. Too much action and too many important political negotiations happen in too few pages. An entire siege takes place in just a few paragraphs; the decision to grant the Herrani autonomy occurs in a single conversation.
What would happen in the real world? I found myself asking, "What real-world historical event could be used as a barometer for the world building in this book? (Clearly, Rutkoski had some history in mind, at least as an analogy.) And then I wondered, "Is the behavior of the populations in the novel true to what we've seen in real life?" I thought the historical allusion might have been to the invasion of Italy by the Visigoths, resulting in Alaric I’s sack of Rome in 410 (the geography works, as does the hair color differences [I think, broadly? The Visigoths were Germanic]). As I read, I was interested that the dynamic that occurs in most historical examples of one people conquering another was minimized here: plundering, pillaging, burning, exodus of refugees, rape as a weapon–in short, absolute devastation of properties and lives. The estates we see in TWC are intact down to the instruments on the wall and china in the cabinets; the surviving male citizens are kept as slaves, in their own hometowns (in private barracks where they can plot their revenge), rather than shipped off to be worked to death in mines and quarries, as they were in Italy; aristocratic women become house servants, not brutalized sex slaves or killed. This deficit of brutality is particularly noticeable given that the action of the novel takes place only ten years after the siege. I would have presumed that the horrific living conditions of the conquered, the ethnic cleansing, and the restoration of agriculture, etc. would still be happening. To be this settled and relatively bucolic (at least for the Valorians), I would have expected that more time had passed. I think Rutkoski probably wanted to make Arin’s cause more urgent to him personally by having him live through the war as a child, but it makes the setting feel off, in geo-political terms.
In short: I couldn't come to terms with the fact that the Valorians--this warlike people, talented at conquering, ruthless at taking--were being so careless with their command of the Herrani people. Part of the problem is that Rutkoski wants us to sympathize with both sides (a noble goal, and the entire basis of the Song of Ice and Fire series, in which we root for so many people at odds with each other), so she's afraid of not showing honor, all the time. Our primary view of the Valorians is General Trajan and his daughter--a general, who should be an instrument of war--and yet this general is so much the "officer and gentleman." To boot, this general's daughter is a slave-freer, and a woman who allows her outspoken slave to criticize her in public. But more on Kestrel later.
Somewhat flat secondary characters. I think there's going to be a lot to recommend Ronan in the second installment, but his sister, Jess, is so far a bit empty as a character, with traits pasted on rather than deeply felt. She sometimes seems to exist solely to show how much more intelligent and cynical and talented (in music and in strategy) Kestrel is, and to give Kestrel a female friend and a bartering reason to help Arin's rebellion. While Jess is consistently kind and loyal, even while being superficial, and she understands the value of friendship over gossip, there's nothing more complicated than that about her. But the real characterization problem--oy!--the real problem was Cheat. (Was anyone else unable to get the "The Cheat" Theme Song from Strong Bad out of their heads while reading this book?!) Cheat is also something of a cut-out: the leader of the rebels who turns out to be ambitious but sleazy and less clever than his second-in-command, Arin. Rutkoski dispatches Cheat in the sloppiest way possible: by having him devolve into a raping, conniving bastard whom we don't mind having Arin skewer in the belly as he saves Kestrel from being violently sexually assaulted. The mistakes here are 1. using rape as a shorthand for "bad guy," 2. using rape to make us not feel squeamish about Cheat's death, and 3. having the love interest break into the room just in time to save the damsel in distress.
In fact, Rutkoski tempers a lot of deaths in the book in this way--either by having only trivial characters killed (Harman the steward, for instance), or debasing a character somewhat so we don't mind his death as much (Irex the sexually harassing jerk, and Benix, who ignored Kestrel at the ball when she needed his support the most). The only death that means something is Enai's, and she unfortunately is one of those slightly flat characters--the slave nanny who grew to love her charge as her own daughter.
Kestrel. I admire it whenever an author tries to make a character imperfect. But Rutkoski falls into the trap of making Kestrel alternate between total perfection (her piano playing, her Bite and Sting tactics, her intelligence, her beauty) and implausible stupidity, which is not the way to do it. For a gifted strategist, Kestrel's deal with her dad is abysmal: technically, she doesn't have to decide for three years whether she'll marry or enlist in the army, so she has all the power in this negotiation. Instead, she bargains that she'll either join his army or marry in the spring in exchange basically for his getting off her back and allowing her to play the piano as much as she wants until then! (Even though her dad is supposed to be equally or more skilled at negotiations, his dominance doesn't show here, so it feels odd that Kestrel makes such a poor deal.) Then Kestrel, the incredible strategist, tells her outspoken, volatile slave who has already expressed his resentment of the Valorians, that her father is removing the entire regiment from the city the next day, leaving the city undefended. I also would have liked to have seen her manipulate people in some way other than just "I'll tell society what I know about you."
What is "the winner's curse?" This term is not used entirely correctly in the book: it’s mostly a catch-phrase here and oversimplifies the economic concept. An auction involves an intrinsic (but unknown) value of the item, along with all the bidders' ex ante expectations of that value. A more subtle treatment of the concept might have explored, for instance, the way that ex post, Kestrel’s calculation of Arin’s expected value to her turned out to be wildly underestimated (thus, she didn’t actually suffer the winner’s curse). The analogy Kestrel used for the emperor at the end doesn't really hold, either, does it? He did not bid on the countries that he "won," he spent money and lives on wars. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say he gambled his resources to acquire them. Kestrel tries to tie the "steep price" of the winner's curse to the emperor's erosion of control and his dwindling resources in keeping command of his territories, but that analogy is slippery, other than in a perhaps poetic way.
More throwaway characters? So help me, if the Eastern “barbarians” turn out over the course of the series to in fact be evil just to advance the plot (as they are right now), rather than a third party with valid human worth and sovereignty claims, I will kick and scream.
But Rutkoski has definitely won me over for now--I'm still thinking about this book, which is a tribute to her--and I'm eager to read the next book when it is released.
A few last thoughts:
1. Why does the emperor want his son to marry a mere general's daughter, after a five-minute meeting with her? Impossible. Emperors marry their children off in ways that shore up relations with neighboring countries, or shore up their sovereignty in an existing state. The marriages of your children are critical political moves if you're a ruler.
2. The simple word "no" in both Herrani and Valorian must be incredibly complicated, since at the slave auction Kestrel thinks none of the Valorian audience members will understand Arin's refusal to sing. She can also tell from that single word "no" whether someone's accent is flawless in either language.
3. The "escort" rule felt like an implausible plot device to get Kestrel and Arin to spend time together. It requires a very big leap of faith to think that the rule is so meaningless (a vestige of tradition) that the choice of escort doesn't matter at all. Jess, who is her age and inferior to her in fighting ability, will apparently suffice. A physically strong, handsome, outspoken slave is not obviously "safer" for Kestrel than traveling by herself, and being alone in a carriage with him is downright odd. Rutkoski seems somewhat wobbly about this plot choice herself, and draws attention to it without resolving it. She has Kestrel argue that she shouldn't need an escort because all Valorian women are trained in combat and carry daggers, while her father and Harman insist that she must follow the rule anyway; and occasionally Rutkoski has someone raise an eyebrow at Kestrel's choice, but has Kestrel dismiss it. There's perhaps a fundamental problem in the way Rutkoski wants women to be equals in this society, and physically able, but she needs Kestrel to have an escort--a reason to be with Arin, so she invents this tradition that only women who have enlisted in the military can travel the streets alone, but never really explores it in a societal way.
4. Rutkoski should have introduced the gold-dust forehead symbol for an engagement earlier in the book, so that she didn't have to explain it on the fly when we first see it on Kestrel.
5. Loose threads: Rarely, but more than once, Rutkoski introduced something that I wasn't sure was used again later. For instance, we learn that the Valorians train themselves to need little sleep. Was that meant to play out when Kestrel has to sail the boat alone for a few days? Another example: Jess's parents are conveniently away in the capital when the wine is poisoned. Why was their absence necessary? Just so that Ronan could propose to Kestrel while dancing? (Or to spare the readers' feelings by not having Jess and Ronan's family die on camera?) And what of the inconsistency that the Herrani cheer when they have a military victory, but the Valorians sing? Isn't that the opposite of what we'd expect?
6. This is not Rutkoski's fault, but the cover is a disaster. It does the book a real disservice, by appealing to only one demographic of readership. It looks like it's from Vogue magazine. This book hopes for much more, with its fascinating exploration of power and relationships (what it means to be weak, strong, and owned). Kestrel is a young woman who is part of a warlike people, where women are equals in battle, and her own skill set is military strategy. She is also an accomplished musician. There are wars in this book. None of that is hinted at. Yes, Kestrel does happen to wear some ballgowns in the book, because she's part of the upper class, but UGH ballgown covers. Just stop.