The Winner’s Curse is set in the fantasy world of Valoria, an empire of warriors loosely based on ancient Rome. Ten years ago they conquered Haran and enslaved all the people (the ones they didn’t kill, of course). This is the world Kestrel has grown up in. Her mother died when she was a young girl and her father — the general who led the invasion of Haran — has mostly raised her. He wants her to join the army — one of the two choices a Valorian girl has; it’s either that or get married — but Kestrel has resisted. Partially because she’s devoted to her music (taboo in Valorian society; music is for the slaves) and partially because she’s no good at it. What she is good at, however, is gambling.
I’m going to stop here and say that Kestrel is one of the more interesting characters I’ve read about, and one of the reasons I really liked this book. She wasn’t a “kick-butt” heroine in the “traditional” fantasy sense of the word; she sucks at swordplay, is more interested in protecting her hands than learning how to slit a throat. But she is cunning. And observant. And willing to take risks and use what she knows (or deduces) to win a hand, whether that be in her game of choice, or in her life.
In fact, watching her strategize and manipulate the people around her was one of the most enjoyable aspects of this book. She’s not cruel — she’s actually sympathetic to the Haran rebellion that comes up — but she has her priorities, and she will do anything (anything!) to fill them. And even though it’s the first in a trilogy, this storyline wraps up quite nicely.
The only weak leak is the Haran slave, Arin, that Kestrel falls in love with. He’s pretty much a one-dimensional character, and the love story felt, well, weak. Thankfully, there are some nice twists near the end that fill it out much more nicely. And maybe Arin will become more complex and fleshed out in later books.
Even with that minor quibble, I more than thoroughly enjoyed reading this one. I’m hooked.
Rated: Mild for some violence, an attempted (non-graphic) rape scene, some mild swearing, and a lot of politics.