The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Published by:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Winning what you want may cost you everything you love
As 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.Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.  [Source: Macmillan]

My thoughts…

The Winner’s Curse is beautifully written and constructed. I finished it a couple days ago, but have been pondering the book and how exactly to review it — how does one analyse something that is greater than the sum of its parts?

I admit, I had high expectations because the author’s biography at the back of the book jacket described Rutkoski as a college professor who teaches creative writing, children’s literature, and Shakespeare. Someone who teaches creative writing better be a great writer. And the verdict: I think Rutkoski’s creative writing classes will be filling up because her novel proves that those who teach also can.

There are several elements that make this story so hard to put down:  its perfect pacing, descriptive writing, and infuriating protagonist. All the elements of story are revealed carefully and in a way that feels natural. Whenever I started to wonder about the world, there’d be some history. When I began to wonder about a particular character, he or she would re-emerge. Events happen at a pace that ebbs and flows and allows the reader to think. The protagonist, Kestrel, is imperfect; she’s sharp-tongued, impulsive, has a good heart. When I find myself snapping at the main character’s stubbornness, then I know I’ve completely bought into the world.

What sets this novel apart from others is how literary it is — the thought that has been put into the words and themes really raise the level of sophistication. Open the novel randomly anywhere, and you are bound to find descriptive sentences that verge on poetic. The metaphors are subtle and apt that I did not even notice how many there were initially. The construction of the themes is also impressive. The idea of the winner’s curse is explained right away in the first chapter, and then is threaded and spiralled throughout the rest of the novel. Characters tell stories from that world. Poems are recited. Every piece that emerges falls into place to support the questions over winning and losing.

Overall, I highly recommend this novel and it could be one that can be used in high school English classes.

Putting my teacher-hat on, here are some preliminary ideas on how to use this novel in class…

Possible over-arching inquiry questions:

[I use Jeffrey Wilhelm’s ideas about inquiry when I plan my novel units]

  • How can winning also be a curse?
  • Would you be able to keep your spirit if you lost your freedom?
  • How do you know you’ve won?
  • How much would you sacrifice to be the victor?
  • Edit:  What does it mean to win? What does it mean to lose?

What to explore:

  • figurative devices
  • theme
  • characterization
  • setting

Background/Related/Supplemental topics:

  • games [Edit:  in the novel: Bite and Sting — a game where you bluff your way to a win]
  • combat / military strategy
  • economic theory
  • Pyrrhic victory
  • Greco-Roman history and daily lives
  • Edit:  Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan knee caps [other related Olympic, sports examples?],
  • Edit:  The Last Samurai, Good Morning Vietnam [possible related film comparisons?]
  • Edit:  Other possible examples from news?  eg. war on terrorism


Anything else that might work as a supplemental comparison to the themes?