WARNING! There are some spoilers for the plot of this book in the review, so if you prefer to go into a book knowing nothing about it, you may want to skip this.
Kestrel is the only daughter of Valorian general Trajan. They live in the province of Herran, formerly a bustling independent nation, invaded, conquered, enslaved and now occupied on orders from the Valorian emperor. The surviving Herrani are slaves, bought and sold at the mercy of the Valorians. As a Valorian woman, Kestrel has two choices in life, she can join the army (which her father very much wants her to do, not for her fighting skills, which are frankly unremarkable, but for her clever mind and affinity for strategy) or marriage. She is uncomfortable with the imperialistic nature of her people, but doesn't exactly do a lot to voice her discontent either. In fact, though uncomfortable with the enslavement of the Herrani, she ends up buying a Herrani slave at an auction for an enormous sum, and comes to regret it in more ways than one.
Arin is a former Herrani noble, sold into General Trajan's household as a blacksmith. He correctly senses that Kestrel can be manipulated and soon gains a lot of freedom to move around the estate, and occasionally even to visit the city centre. Arin's presence at the auction wasn't a coincidence, and he is working in secret with many other Herrani to overthrow their Valorian oppressors. He never expected to grow so close to a Valorian, but the more time he spends in Kestrel's presence, the more their attraction grows. What is going to happen when his fight for freedom upsets her entire world?
"The Winner's Curse" of the title of this book refers to the fact that the winner of an auction having in many ways lost, because whoever places the winning bid, has paid more than what all the other bidders have decided the item is worth. In the case of Kestrel in this book, the bidding escalates incredibly quickly, and she ends up paying a scandalous amount for Arin. That she later comes to regret her purchase in all sorts of other ways, is also part of her curse.
This was a book that I heard about fairly early in 2014, but pretty much discounted because of the silly cover. As the year progressed, the book got very favourable reviews on a number of sites I follow, and it also appeared on several Best of 2014 lists. So when I found it on sale at the end of the year, I bought it, and as I've been granted an ARC of the second book in the series, I figured it was time to finally see what all the fuss was about.
On Goodreads, I've seen several reviews very unhappy with the way the issue of slavery was dealt with in this book. The Valorians are basically the Romans here, greedily expanding their empire, not really because they are threatened by their surrounding countries, but because of greed and a wish to subjugate all those they consider weaker and thus inferior to them. A strategic, military nation, they basically invaded the peninsula of Herran through trickery and considered the Herrani weak because they surrendered quickly, letting themselves be enslaved, rather than trying to fight back. Now Valorians occupy the area, living in Herrani mansions, buying and selling the Herrani as slaves. No one seems to question the rightness of this, not even Kestrel, who is seen as controversial in society because she used a favour from her father on her sixteenth birthday to free the Herrani woman who acted as her nurse.
I can see why some people are uncomfortable, but I also severely doubt that the majority of Romans, Greeks, 17th and 18th Century Americans or Europeans for that matter, who all enslaved and traded in other humans actually considered the atrocity of what they were doing. So it's unfair to expect a protagonist written into such a society to be super progressive and against the very fabric of the society she's a product of. Kestrel has been raised believing that the Valorians are superior. She's always been surrounded by slaves. Only when she actually comes into contact with and spends time with Arin, who gives her some perspective on what it's like to be on the other side of such a transaction, does she start to gradually change her views.
I really liked the book, for all that some of the serious issues are dealt with in a very YA way. There is not a lot of time spent giving back story to the Valorian invasion or exactly what atrocities were perpetrated. While it's clear that Arin has experienced some very horrible things in his past, that's not really explored either. It is very understandable that the Valorian occupation has led the formerly very peaceful Herrani towards revolt and while Kestrel is quite appalled at some of the actions of the rebels, it was hard to fault them for wanting to take their country and freedom back.
Kestrel is an engaging heroine, portrayed somewhat out of touch with the rest of her peers. She loves and respects her father, but is deeply reluctant to choose either of the options available to her as a Valorian woman. Only seventeen, she has long realised that she's not a fighter, and as she disapproves of the Valorian tendency to invade and conquer their surrounding lands, the idea of becoming a strategician and officer isn't appealing to her either. Nor is she particularly taken with the idea of marrying, even though her best friend Tess would be all too happy to see her form an alliance with her brother Ronan. What Kestrel really longs to do, is devote herself to music, a past time seen as frivolous and strange to the other Valorians. Music, literature and art are apparently things that the Herrani excelled at, now they have to perform for their new masters. One of the things that initially gets her involved in the bidding war for Arin, is that the auctioneer claims that he's an accomplished singer. Because of the high importance placed on personal honour in ancient Roman (and therefore here in Valorian society), obeying one's parents and always saving face is imperative. Hence, while Kestrel may in her heart of hearts be uncomfortable with much of the way her society is run, she's one young woman, and protesting and causing scenes would likely just result in her being married off to some older man who was expected to control her.
While there are scenes from Arin's point of view, so much more time is spent with Kestrel, and he remains a bit of a mystery. He is clearly an important figure in the Herrani rebellion, and it is made clear over the course of the novel that he came from a high ranking family, and lost his family when the Valorians invaded. While he wants to hate Kestrel among with the other Valorians, there is an undeniable attraction from the start, and it grows the more time they spend together. He plays on her guilt and discomfort to get free passage on the estate, and is frequently the slave that accompanies her to her society events, able to observe, spy, plot and strategise. Like Kestrel, Arin is very intelligent and they both thrive on strategy games. While Kestrel's wits are usually used in gambling for coins in entertaining party games, the stakes for Arin and his accomplices are so much higher.
While the book was slow to build, I very much enjoyed the more action packed and dramatic second half. There is a delicious melodrama and star-crossed lovers aspect to Kestrel and Arin's romance, with their happily ever after seeming pretty impossible. Even more so with the developments in the last quarter of the book, which left me impatiently waiting for the second book in the series, which I luckily have available to me. I hope that the second book doesn't end on as much as a cliff-hanger, as the third book isn't out until 2016.