Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner is definitely in my top ten favourite novels. At first, I didn’t think I’d like the “mannerpunk” sort of fantasy, that is, a fantasy setting with no fantastical elements, so much so that it could be mistaken for historical fiction. Since PotS, I’ve been searching for a novel with a similar emphasis on duels and swashbuckling adventure.

The Winner’s Curse seemed promising, at least, judging from the back cover text, which promised a tale of intrigue, dancing, and duels.


Kestrel is the privileged daughter of a general, Arin is a slave in his own homeland. When Kestrel buys Arin at auction, their destinies are intertwined, and they can’t help but fall in love. Unfortunately, with rebellion on the horizon, Arin and Kestrel need to decide where their loyalties lie: their countries or their hearts.

In terms of things I liked,the writing is not terrible (although the author does love her short sentences). I liked how Kestrel is more focused on traditionally “feminine” pursuits like playing music (piano, in this case) and is adamant that her worth is not tied to how many people she can whack with a sword (which is what her father wants her to do). However, Kestrel is introduced as a girl who is good at strategy but prefers to beat everyone at a game called Bite and Sting, and in a few scenes in the novel, she gets to demonstrate the depth of her strategic mind, like blackmailing a nobleman into letting her win a duel or figuring out how to sneak out of confinement with few tools available. I also like how she has a close female friend, Jess, who is more focused on pretty dresses and catching the eye of cute boys than soldiering.

Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, as for most of the book Kestrel lets Arin (her slave, remember?) walk all over her, as well as making frankly absurd decisions, like wagering matches in a game against Arin, matches, which can be used to light fires, to a slave. She also fails to figure out that Arin is in fact not visiting a sweetheart in town. For someone who is supposed to be a good military strategist, she stays in the dark regarding this “sweetheart” until Arin tells her so.  In another scene, Atin talks back to Kestrel, what does she do? Does she punish him? No, she immediately acquiesces to his demands to give him more freedom. Not that I support slavery or punishing slaves, mind you. Fun fact: the book refers to Arin as “the slave” for about five chapters before he gives Kestrel his name–even in chapters from Arin’s perspective. That’s right, even in chapters from his perspective, the book still refers to him as “the slave”.

This undoubtedly sounds hypocritical of me given my praise of Captive Prince, but unlike Captive Prince, The Winner’s Curse depicts “slavery lite” with none of the brutality of, say, Snow Like Ashes (which, unlike Captive Prince, is also aimed at young adults). I’ve heard one reviewer describe this book as “girl buys boy at a slave auction” and I honestly can’t fathom how a reviewer doesn’t see anything wrong with the basic premise. Actually, I take that back, I know why. The author claims she was inspired by the Romans enslaving the Greeks, but Arin, like Damen, is described as having “tan” skin. Kestrel, unsurprisingly, is described as white and blonde.

Yeah, problems all around.

In a way I feel betrayed because none of the synopses or reviews I read prior to buying the book mentioned the slavery angle at all. Apparently the hardcover edition does but I was focusing on the paperback. I’m more surprised that some of the people I follow on tumblr were fangasming over this book and, once again, not a peep about the whole slavery thing. At least Captive Prince is up front about its content.

In terms of diversity, there really isn’t any unless you see the Herrani as poc (obviously not positive representation). Even though the Valorian Empire is clearly modeled off Ancient Rome, there don’t appear to be any queer characters. Potential triggers include the obvious portrayal of slavery, violence, and one attempted rape (it’s also implied that Arin’s sister was raped by the Valorians, or at the very least that something terrible happened to her).

The Winner’s Curse is doomed to occupy the spot on my shelf reserved for books with potential, but ultimately flawed execution. I have absolutely zero desire to continue with this trilogy. I’m currently reading Truthwitch, it’s awesome so far. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Game Review: Root Letter

[tw sexual assault, suicide]

Once upon a time, no Western publisher thought that there was a market in the West for visual novels. Nowadays, Aksys releases at least one otome game a year and the visual novel tag on Steam keeps having more titles (of varying quality) added to its ranks. One genre we don’t see represented very much, however, is the adventure game. The Ace Attorney series immediately springs to mind for me, or maybe it’s because I just don’t play that many adventure games.


Root Letter (stylized as a square root sign encompassing the word “Letter”) was a pleasant surprise when it was announced for localization. It’s developed by Kadokawa Games and published by PQube in the West, and is the first in Kadokawa Games’ “Kadokawa Game Mystery brand. Key staff from the popular Japan-only dating sim LovePlus also worked on this game, including character designer Mino Taro.

The protagonist of Root Letter (default name Takayuki) is a middle-aged man who is searching for his high school penpal, Aya Fumino, after he finds an unsent letter from her in which she confesses to a murder. Determined to find out the truth, he heads to Matsue in Shinmane Prefecture to hunt down her classmates she spoke about in her letters. Unfortunately, she only addressed them by their nicknames, so he has a bit of detective work to do.

I think this is one of the only games I’ve played where the setting steals the show. The developers worked with the local government to depict Matsue as accurately as possible. You can go on Google right now and find photographs that look just like the backdrops in the game, down to the view from the tour boat that tours around Matsue Castle. The area is also rich with history, folklore and traditions that are reflected in the game, such as when the protagonist visits Yaegeki Shrine, known for its association with lovers and matchmaking, and participates in a divination where a coin and a slip of paper placed in the Mirror Pond foretell how long it will take you to marry based on how long it takes to sink. Food is ever present, from soba noodles to dango (dumplings) and Western-style cakes. It made me very hungry and I have very limited access to typical ingredients used in Japanese dishes where I live (for some reason they stock sushi rice but no seaweed).

Gameplay consists of two main phases. There’s the typical adventure game phase, where you can Move to different locations, interact with objects in scenes by “Checking” them, have conversations with witnesses through the “Ask” command, and occasionally present them with items from your Inventory. At certain times or if you’re just stuck, you can have Takayuki use the “Think” command to give you a hint as to where to go next or what to ask. He can also consult the guidebook, which provides information about the locations you visit, or check his smartphone, which you can use to save and load the game or view items you’ve collected. Then there’s Investigation mode, where Takayuki interrogates someone he suspects to be one of Aya’s classmates by presenting evidence and asking the right questions at the right time (much like the Ace Attorney series). At certain points during this phase, he’ll enter Max Mode, where a meter starts climbing and you need to select the correct phrase to throw at the person to continue the story. At the beginning of each chapter, Max will read a letter from his penpal, and remember how he responded. Your responses determine which ending you get. The game should take about 15 – 20 hours to complete with all trophies, even if you don’t use a guide for the little side missions.

The characters themselves aren’t as exaggerated as your average anime character, and they each have their dreams and secrets. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole ton of depth to them. There’s the fat kid (originally nicknamed “Fatty”) who struggles with his self-confidence and feelings for a girl when he isn’t conventionally attractive, there’s the housewife who dreamed of becoming a famous pop star and instead lives her dreams through her daughter, there’s the riches-to-tags scion of a father who made one too many shady business deals who is struggling to make ends meet, and so on. I think my favourite of the bunch was Snappy, who doesn’t take anyone’s shit.

That said, ultimately Root Letter fell short of my expectations for several reasons. The protagonist is flat out rude and obnoxious, harassing characters when they straight up tell him to leave them alone. and even triggering them by exposing them to their phobias when they clam up and he can’t get any useful information out of them. I get that the devs needed to think up ways that these characters would keep talking to this douche, but it didn’t endear me to the protagonist at all. The investigations all follow the same basic format: the person you’re talking to denies they are one of your penpal’s classmates, you present evidence to the contrary, they deny it, you act like a prick until they admit it. Unlike in, say, Ace Attorney, where some trials throw some extra condition at you, there’s really nothing like that here. It doesn’t help that the English script feels like it’s been literally translated from Japanese, so there’s some really odd phrasing when you’re questioning people about certain topics. One example that immediately comes to mind is when asking someone about their “Preferred Partner” when the topic is the person this individual is crushing on. More than once I was clicking through all the dialogue options because I didn’t know if they were at all relevant to the discussion. While the music is nice, ranging from melancholy piano music to more upbeat when you engage Max Mode, there’s not a lot of it, and you’ll be spending most of your time with this game listening to the same track over and over. Many reviewers have complained about the endings. Personally, I like that the endings are so different, covering everything from horror to UFO sightings, but only the fifth ending explains the whole story. The others are more like someone wanting to be a bit more experimental. Something that particularly annoyed me was that although there is an option to skip chapters after you’ve completed the game once, there’s no option to skip chapter eight, which means that you need to play through it at least five times to see all the endings. Also, in chapter three, the protagonist doesn’t read the letter at the beginning of the chapter like the other letters, so if you want the trophy for all the letter responses you’ll need to go through that bit five times.

In terms of potential triggers, the “Cursed Letter” ending is the bloodiest and most violent ending that requires you to collect ghost stories featuring varying degrees of murderous ghosts. The nicknames Aya calls her friends include Bitch, Fatty, and Four-Eyes, which the entire cast uses constantly. In one scene, the protagonist essentially forces one of the characters (who has weight-related issues) to eat chocolate potato chips, tries to take advantage of a character’s bird phobia by waving a stuffed bird around, and causes a character to pass out by making them think that there’s blood on the floor (actually jam). In at least two of the endings, one character knocks Aya to the ground and kisses her. This character doesn’t try to deny that this was assault.

At least in terms of setting, Root Letter feels like a labour of love on the part of the developers. It’s a shame that a wooden English translation and obnoxious lead character soured my experience. I want to recommend this to people who like thrillers and are looking for something to play on a weekend, but the fact is that there are better games out there that deliver the same sort of experience.