The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner’s Curse came to my attention when my good friend Nomes mentioned that it’s one of her favorite reads for this year. For some reason, this title flew under my radar when it first came out. I think the cover doesn’t really represent the story very well and might be one of the reasons why I wasn’t initially curious about The Winner’s Curse. I tried reading a couple of chapters just to see if it’s something that I would be interested in and I was fully absorbed. I was surprised at how easy it was to get into the story.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The Winner's CurseAs a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him — with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

The Winner’s Curse is set in a make-believe world but has no magic or mythical creatures in it so it has more of a historical fantasy feel to it. Kestrel is the daughter of a well-known general, which is a pretty big deal since their society holds the military and warfare in high regard. The Valorian empire is already huge and yet it still continues to extend its reach and enslave the nations it conquers. The story is set several years after the Valorians have conquered the Herrani people. While Kestrel loves her people and she knows that slavery is part of their culture and their way of life, she doesn’t really approve of it. When she unexpectedly buys a slave at an auction, she has no idea what to with him. But she recognizes Arin’s strength of spirit and admires that. A friendship slowly develops between the two of them. Kestrel is bound by the constraints of the Valorian society – she only has two choices when she comes of age: to join the military or to get married, neither of which are very appealing to her. She’s not a good soldier even if she keeps training and she’s not interested enough in any guy to marry him. She’s great at military strategy, which is why her father keeps pushing her to enlist, but she’s not passionate about that kind of thing. What she loves is music, something which Valorians believe shouldn’t be taken seriously. A snippet to show how Kestrel feels when she plays the piano:

“Music made her feel as if she were holding a lamp that cast a halo of light around her, and while she knew there were people and responsibilities in the darkness beyond it, she couldn’t see them. The flame of what she felt when she played made her deliciously blind.”

I wish I felt that strongly about music but I don’t have the skill or talent for it. Instead, I will liken Kestrel’s passion to how I sometimes feel when I read – entirely focused in the world created by the author, paying no attention to other tasks that need to be done. Which is exactly what happened while I was reading The Winner’s Curse. To be honest, I have a hard time pinpointing why I enjoyed this book so much. I suppose it’s mostly because I like Kestrel, I like Arin and I like how their friendship developed. They’re both intelligent characters who slowly learn to respect and trust each other, in spite of their differences and the enmity between their nations. I also liked the setting and the contrast between the Valorian and Herrani cultures. How one was all about gaining power by expanding its borders, and one was a more peaceful culture centered around the arts. I was engrossed by The Winner’s Curse and yet I also feel like it could have been a stronger book. Let’s put it this way, this is a good introduction to the series and the story arc wraps up nicely but I feel like by the time the sequel comes out (maybe next year?), I would have forgotten most of the details in this one. It wasn’t mind-blowing but it was a pleasant and enjoyable read which I recommend to YA fans, even those who don’t usually read fantasy.

Other reviews:
Fantasy Cafe
Good Books and Good Wine
Ivy Book Bindings
Shae Has Left the Room
The Bookish Manicurist
Alexa Loves Books

The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse

The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse is a retelling of the latter part of Beowulf. I don’t think I’ve ever read Beowulf or a retelling based on it. I don’t know much about this epic tale because we never studied it for school. The Coming of the Dragon came highly recommended by both Brandy of Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library so I decided to give it a go. Also, I’m very curious about the companion novel, Peaceweaver, because Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers gave it a positive joint review. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that both books are available in the library. Yay for making the most out of my library membership!

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The Coming of the DragonWhen he was a baby, Rune washed up onshore in a boat, along with a sword and a pendant bearing the runes that gave him his nickname. Some people thought he was a sacrifice to the gods and wanted to send him right back to the sea. Luckily for Rune, King Beowulf disagreed. He lifted the boy from the boat and gave him to Amma, a wise woman living on a farm far removed from the king’s hall, to raise as she saw fit.

Sixteen years later, Rune spends his summers laboring on the farm. And at King Beowulf’s request, he comes to the hall each winter for weapons training. But somehow he never quite fits in. Many people still fear he will bring a curse on the kingdom. Then a terrible thing happens. On a lonely crag on a mountain that belongs to the giants, someone awakens a dragon. It is time for Rune to find the warrior inside himself and prove to the doubters once and for all that he is a true hero.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now then you’re probably aware that I read all kinds of books but I rarely venture into middle grade territory. I only do that when a book comes recommended by book bloggers I trust. And when I end up enjoying the book, I usually feel like I would have loved to read it when I was in the target age for it. The Coming of the Dragon is one of those novels. I really liked Rune’s character development – he starts off as an insecure young man but grows into something more as the story progresses. I understood how difficult and confusing life must have been like for Rune while growing up. I mean it’s hard enough to figure out what you’re meant to do with your life but with Rune, he had to deal with not knowing who his real parents are or where he came from. He desperately wants to prove himself, he just needs the chance to do so. I liked how the change in his character from the beginning to the end wasn’t drastic, it felt believable based on the challenges that Rune experienced.

There is magic in this book but most of it is subtle, aside from the presence of the dragon. The novel reads more like historical fiction instead of epic fantasy. Maybe I should just describe it as historical fantasy and leave it at that. Like I said, I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to Beowulf or this time period so I’m not sure how accurate the setting is. What I can just say is that I enjoyed reading about the characters and their struggles to overcome their biggest foe: the dragon. I found the first few chapters a little slow but things picked up towards the end. Also, I got the feeling that the kingdom wasn’t that big? I was wondering why there weren’t more people who were there to fight against the dragon. Although that might really be the case, Beowulf’s kingdom might just be a small one. I was really curious about Peaceweaver after reading this one and was a bit disappointed to discover that it’s not a sequel but a companion novel instead. It doesn’t continue the story after The Coming of the Dragon but occurs simultaneously with the events of the novel and features a different character. I’m still interested in reading it though, I just hope Rebecca Barnhouse returns to Rune’s story. Would you happen to have any other recommendations based on Norse mythology?

Other reviews:
Charlotte’s Library
Random Musings of a Bibliophile