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.