Initial reaction: Consider me very surprised. I really enjoyed this book, and I wasn't expecting to at all. Thinking somewhere between 3.5 and 4 stars. I'm definitely reading the rest of this series.
What a rollercoaster ride of a read this was. I'll admit I had my reservations about beginning this series, but in the end, it was a strong beginning to what ended up being a interesting story (though with flaws, as I'll discuss soon). Part of the reason why I enjoyed this read as much as I did was Justine Eyre's excellent audio narration. She nailed the performance and brought out the writing and emotion in a way that held my attention throughout the novel. Inspired by Antiquity and taken from the Greco-Roman period, "The Winner's Curse" novel is a fantasy that notes the conflict between two parties: the Valorians and the Herrani. The novel begins when Kestrel, the high ranking daughter of a General in the Valorian army, purchases a Herrani slave, Arin, in market on a whim - though she reasons he'll be useful to her household because of his blacksmithing skills. She's also intrigued by his purported musical ability, as she has a heart for music rather than following in her father's footsteps as a soldier.
Arin is a man who's lost his family in the tides of conflict, not so subtly working behind the scenes to aid in an uprising to which Kestrel is naive to. She lets him do as he pleases in places because she's intrigued by him, and the two end up having an unlikely connection that becomes more complicated as the conflicts build behind the scenes. I'll admit that it took a while for the momentum of the novel to hit the ground running, but it was the strength of the audio version and the way the writing wove the two narratives together that held my attention throughout. I expected to have qualms about the portrayal of slavery in this book, but I felt like the conflict was done in a way that was realistic - the betrayals hitting home and the onset of a bitter war a real reality with heavy costs looming in the backdrop until it broke open with subsequent events. The uprising at the ball somewhat reminded me of a scene from the anime/manga Rose of Versailles that I saw a long time ago. Injustices are present, but it still feels like it doesn't quite go as deep as it could go for those conflicts.
I'll admit that while this is strongly sold as a romance (and the focal points of the book definitely confirm that) - I'll admit I was intrigued primarily by the interactions between characters and the layers upon which they made their decisions. Rutkoski does a great job of shaping Kestrel and Arin's loyalties to the people around them, while at the same time building the conflict of their relationship to each other and the division between their societies. I almost wish the book had delved into that more and developed it to where the world was more vivid (though it proves to be functional for the story presented).
There were some scenes where Kestrel's naivete grated on me in the beginning of the story, but I felt she did have points of growth as the story moved forward, same with Arin. It's difficult to say because as a whole - "The Winner's Curse" is an intriguing story that doesn't quite go as deep as it could go - and that's what disappoints me to some degree in reflecting upon it. I like the intrigue, I like the backdrop, but it feels like it has a hesitant finger lingering over the button to lend to something bigger. The novel builds to a pulse point conclusion, and I'm intrigued to see where the overarching series goes from here on out.
Overall score: 3.5/5 stars.