“I must get my soul back from you; I am killing my flesh without it.” – Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals
I am always wary of getting too wrapped up in fictional stories or worlds with slaves, because I think the portrayal of human bondage should be serious and impactful, and not something taken lightly or used for spicing up a world/relationship/etc. Possibly that is because I live in a country with a racial divide and a stain on our history and national character from hundreds of years of it. It’s a real part of history, not just America’s, and we should tackle the portrayal of any kind of slavery with sensitivity; we need to show how terrible, how traumatizing, how evil. Slavery is not sexy or fun, or wish fulfilment fodder.
I think The Winner’s Curse tries and mostly succeeds to do this, especially because its world is reminisicent of historical Roman colonization.
Kestrel is Valorian but she has always lived in the province of Herran. Her father, General Trajan, conquered it for the empire. Her people enslaved the native Herrani, but Kestrel is different from most of her countrymen in that she loves Herrani language and has an intimate knowledge of their gods, culture and poetry. She loves music, which angers and worries her father because Valorians are bred for war. He says music and poetry and art make a people weak, and he teaches her that weakness of feeling led to the conquering and bondage of the Herrani by the martial Valorians. Kestrel, however, was raised by the Herrani maid Enai, and it is from Enai that she learns sympathy for the Herrani and disgust for slavery.
Still, no matter how she feels about slavery and the treatment of the slaves, she benefits from their bondage and she does not actively fight against it. She belives as she’s been taught: Valorians were bred to rule and her allegiance is ultimately with her empire. Her father gives her until her next birthday to decide if she will join the military, like he wants, or marry.
No one is more shocked than Kestrel when she buys the slave Smith from the slave market. She doesn’t know why she does it, except the look in his eyes and the auctioneer’s comment that he can sing. Rather than see him humiliated further in the auction, Kestrel pays an exorbitant amount for him and confirms the addage of “the winner’s curse.” Once she takes Smith home, she leaves him to himself and goes about her life.
One of my favorite things about this book is that we are shown that even though Kestrel does not beath Smith, or Arin as he reveals to her, she is complicit in his mistreatment by her household. She knows so little of the slave experience that even though she despises slavery in principle, she can’t or won’t see that he is secretly beaten by her steward and forced to over-work to make items for the steward to sell. Arin ruminates on this as he listens to her play the piano,
“He knew the law of such things: people in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark.” – The Winner’s Curse
As we delve deeper into the story, we get a little of Arin’s thoughts and feelings as well. He has an agenda all his own, and a complicated and mysterious past. He’s old enough to remember his life in Herran before slavery and he is working toward freeing his people. Another strong point of the book is that we see Arin’s complicated feelings about Kestrel; he sees that she has the privilege to look the other way despite her power to try and make change, but he also sees that she is a decent person. He does not let her by with inaction, but his hatred for her transforms into a nuanced understanding and more.
“If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave.” -Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Soon, the tables are turned and it is Kestrel who is at the mercy of the Herrani people.
“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” – Abraham Lincoln
- Characterization – Arin and Kestrel are complex. They’re not simple mouthpieces for a statement, but their interactions and relationship make some pretty powerful ones about inequality, complexity of feeling, contraditions in duty and desire.
- World-building – As I said above, slavery is not sexy in this book and that’s good. I like that we get background into the cultures of the Valorian empire and Herran; this helps us to see why they clashed, why the war-mongering Valorians saw the artistic and peaceful Herrani and thought of taking that beauty and peace instead of learning from it.
- Message – Okay, I’m not saying literature has to have a message. But I am saying I like that I have the option of picking up on one if I want. That’s what makes it meaningful for me. I see books as opportunities to learn about myself and the world as well as fun and engaging stories. There are so many implicit and powerful statements in this book, and I loved seeing someone treat the subject matter with seriousness and heart. Things are not easy for Kestrel and Arin, and of course they wouldn’t be. But their struggle is one we can all get behind – because on a larger scale it’s a struggle we can find reflected/rooted in our times and societies, all times and societies.
- Romance – God, I loved the romance in this book. Understated, slow, nuanced, complex, troubled, confused. It was not removed or even removable from the world itself, and they had to work for it, fight against it, try and understand it.
- Writing – The writing was gorgeous and deep.
- Hardpressed to find any, I enjoyed it so much. I guess I could say that I felt too much of the latter part of the book was rushed. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Kestrel reconciling her feelings, beliefs and inaction with Arin at the estate before the closing action.
The Winner’s Curse is a great story, with characters and relationships you can get behind. It can serve as a strong exploration of power struggles and power structres and how they play out in personal relationships, as well. 4/5 stars!