Kestrel isn’t quite sure what she’s doing when she buys a slave at auction. She certainly had no intention of it when she set out that day, but there was something about him… As the general’s daughter, she is being pushed towards a life in the military and must hide her love of music. Music is for the Harrani, the people her race enslaved when they conquered their lands. She doesn’t really know what to do with her new slave, but soon he is escorting her everywhere, into the houses of society, where no one watches what they say in front of a slave.
At first, I felt a little uncertain of the slavery aspect. It’s a fantasy setting, so why does it have to be white “European” owners with dark skinned slaves? Still, as the story progresses, there’s enough to challenge the characters and their history. There’s the issue of consent, which reminded me of the prisoner/guard relationship. If you are owned, you can’t really say no, a sexual relationship between a master and their slave can never be truly consensual, because they feel like they don’t have a choice. And, indeed, in most cases there isn’t.
These slaves were not considered savages by their conquerors. In fact the Valerians were the savages and the Harrani culture was adopted when they took over their lands. Before the war, their people had traded with each other. They were enslaved, not because they were considered lesser (although after time, this opinion prevailed) but because not trusting the defeated to behave it was either slavery or death. I am surprised such a short time had passed between their enslavement and the events in this story. Their slave culture seemed a lot more entrenched into society.
Neither character is intrinsically likable, something that can be a stumbling block in young adult, but they are complicated and any romance isn’t straight forward. Kestrel doesn’t really see the wrongs her people have done, even when she befriends Arin, she doesn’t become anti-slavery. With her military training, she was bound to know that the Valerian’s stole their land, but it doesn’t bother her. Despite everything, her sense of entitlement prevails.
Arin’s position is more difficult. He’s a slave, with no freedom, his people have been betrayed, but he is also a betrayer. It can’t be easy for him to have empathy towards his mistress and it’s hard to make out his true feeliings. In a straight-forward romantic story, his path would be clear but instead it’s troubled, which makes this more than your average YA romance.
It is a bit slow in places, but it gives you time to really think about their situation. It’s an awkward dynamic which isn’t glossed over in favour of love conquers all.
The Winner’s Curse is published by Bloomsbury and is available now in ebook editions with a paperback coming later in the year. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.