At the suggestion of my daughter, I picked up a copy of Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse Trilogy: The Winner’s Curse (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), The Winner’s Crime (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) and The Winner’s Kiss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). As I was neck deep in revision for a dual-point-of-view novel, my daughter thought The Winner’s Curse might act as a mentor text for how the author masterfully handles two points of view. And while Rutkoski does a phenomenal job with POV, she offers so much more for readers and writers alike.
At the story’s opening, our first protagonist Kestrel and her best friend Jess end up at the slave market quite by mistake. But as a handsome and defiant slave Arin (our second protagonist) is being auctioned, Kestrel bids and purchases him for an unseemly amount of money. Kestrel brings Arin back to her father’s estate where he is put to work as a blacksmith. After a short time, Kestrel chooses him as her escort into town and their relationship shifts from one of ownership and servitude into one of respect and the hint of friendship. It eventually blossoms into romance. But the star-crossed lovers are pitted against each other as Arin leads the slave rebellion and uprising against the army Kestrel’s father commands. Over the second and third books, a complicated relationship between Arin and Kestrel twists and turns with an even more complicated war between Arin’s enslaved people and Kestrel’s people who have dominated them for over a decade. Readers are exposed to brutal battles, political intrigue, relationships and their corresponding power shifts, and the issue of freedom and its costs.
- Language: The writing in this series is thoughtful and deliberate and is an unusual mix of both clean, spare writing that also incorporates intricate details of world-building, battle strategy and day-to-day living in this fictitious country.
- Backstory: I was blown away by Rutkoski’s art of weaving in backstory without info dumping. While I was aware of her skill throughout the story, I was absolutely gobsmacked at the end of book two when she sprinkled in a piece of Arin’s history that an inexperienced writer would have felt compelled to state early on. But Rutkoski was in no hurry. As writers, we can learn a lot from watching good writers sprinkle and weave in backstory.
- Plot: Rutkoski presents her characters and readers with twists and challenges that put the romance of Arin and Kestrel to the extreme test amidst war, an uprising, and a growing understanding by both characters of the other side’s needs.
- Point of View: Rutkoski skillfully moves between the protagonist’s POVs. She was able to show Kestrel’s lack of understanding from her POV, and also teased out Arin’s character slowly. In an interview with Miss Print in 2014, Rutkoski talks about the difficulty of carrying these two POVs and how she decided what information to reveal. “It was very hard—and very different, when written from the POV of one character or another. Although Kestrel’s observant, she fails to understand some things about herself, and so sometimes she doesn’t reveal things to the reader because she doesn’t know it, so the trick when writing from her POV was to let the reader understand what was going on while making it clear that she doesn’t.” And with Arin’s POV: “We don’t get as much of Arin’s POV, especially at the beginning, and this is a deliberate reflection of his character: his anger, his armor, his hardened heart. He does not want to let you in. Even you, the reader.”
The Winner’s Curse Trilogy is definitely worth a closer look by anyone hoping to study superb plotting, backstory, and slow-burn romance development, as well as distinct points of view.