Thursday, March 06, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #64: The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkowski

History is a fertile ground for stories, but not-history is even more so. Want to have a strong-willed young heroine being urged by her famous-general father to join in her empire's triumphant military, but there's no real-world society that would make that plausible? Well, all you need to do is make it not-Rome. The Roman empire wasn't much for women serving openly in the legions, but not-Rome can have any social conventions the author wants.

The Valorian Empire is more than not-Rome, and the peninsula and city of Herran is only mildly Greek. But the echoes are there -- just enough to make them not.

(The one downside of this technique that unsophisticated readers will call your stories "fantasy," even if you include no supernatural elements. You may even agree with them.)

Marie Rutkowski launches a new trilogy for teens with The Winner's Curse, and at its core is a teen girl who is being pressured by her famous-general father (unsubtly named Trajan) to follow him into the army and join him in conquering the barbarians of the east. As is usual for YA novels, what Kestrel wants is harder to her to say -- she loves music, but that's no work for a free Valorian woman. And she doesn't want to get married and settle down to raise strong sons for the armies, as would be the only option for her Roman counterpart. But she doesn't mind at all the conquering part -- she's a fine strategist, even at the age of seventeen, and she's grown up in newly-conquered Herran, cared for by a flock of enslaved locals.

And that's what launches the plot of this book: one day Kestrel finds herself accidentally in the slave market, and bids on a surly Herrani slave -- two years older than her, described as a skilled blacksmith and a talented singer, though he refuses to show any talents in the sales pit -- first out of pity and then out of a combination of bidding frenzy and the inability of a rich young thing to be thwarted in any whim. The young man is called Smith, but she learns soon after she buys him that his name is actually Arin.

He has secrets, of course -- many of them, which the reader comes to know in bits and pieces as he becomes a viewpoint character more and more as the novel goes on. And Kestrel doesn't even suspect those secrets until far too late, for all of her supposed skill at subterfuge and military strategy. She wants to be his friend, in the way that slaveholders who consider themselves benevolent think they can befriend their property. Arin knows better, and, eventually, things change enough that Kestrel comes to understand the difference between friend and owner.

Winner's Curse is not a romance; Arin and Kestrel have a growing mutual attraction, particularly in the last third of the novel, but their very different stations -- all of their different stations at various times in the novel -- keep that from being any more than an undertone. (One suspects the rest of the trilogy will take it much further. And one also notes that similar people in their world have apparently acted on the very same impulses, and suspects Kestrel and Arin's non-romance may be an artifact of telling this story as a YA novel in 2014.) Our not-couple perhaps are not as consistently characterized as we might hope -- they notice and do and overlook things several times in order to make the plot come out the way it should -- but they and their mutual attraction and their world are all compelling and real for the length of Winner's Curse.

And if they make mistakes and (possibly) bad choices, need I mention that they're each still short of twenty years? It's the job of young people to make mistakes, and of old people to remember and regret them. I don't expect the next novel to jump fifty years to bring us an old and regretful Arin and Kestrel, but wouldn't that be something exciting if it did?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index


Jo Walton said...

Did you read Daniel Abraham's Long Price quartet? Because that's what he does. The protagonists are 15, 30, 45 and 60 in the four novels. I loved that.

I enjoyed _The Winner's Curse_ too.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Jo: I haven't read the Long Price books, though I think I have copies; people keep recommending them to me. (And they sound like the kind of thing I'd love, but diving into a four-book series all at once has seems a lot, so far.)

But that particular point really intrigues me; there's so much fantasy that deals with teenagers, and only a very little about sixty-somethings. Thanks for mentioning it.

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