From all the hype on booktube, to the very favourable book reviews on goodreads, I was beyond convinced that purchasing the first book in the Winner's trilogy would be a worthwhile endeavour. As it turned out, I scored the Winner's Curse as a birthday present in late June, and aren't I happy I didn't waste my pitiful student savings on this novel. Although it was just one in the large birthday stack I received (I pretty much only asked for books this year), this was one of the first novels I picked up to read. Disappointingly, by the final pages, I was still waiting to see what the hype was about.
This book was entertaining, there's no denying. It was a page turner in the sense that although I became irritated by the characters and frustrated by the underdevelopment of what had the potential to be a very interesting world, the plot was intriguing enough to keep me reading. Furthermore, the relatively short nature of the book (it has small pages and only tips 300 words) made it a one-day read for me, despite being at work for a good eight hours.
The thing which irritated me beyond the fanciful character development, was the world. The fantastical history of the Herrani and the war against the Valorian invaders could have been so much better. I yearned to know more of the backstory - how the battle proceeded, what the traditions of the Herrani were, why they appear to be a Roma-esque group and their family units/bonds/cultural experiences etcetera. Unfortunately, we get to know very little of Arin's backstory and instead are treated to pages upon pages of Valorian-born Kestrel's privileged upbringing. Which, brings me to my next point.
Kestrel wants for very little, is doted on by her father and loved by her friends. Yet, she is constantly bemoaning her future as a military figure or bride. As an allegedly "brilliant" strategist, you would have thought Kestrel would have pursued the path of diplomacy with her father in his pursuit to see her married or otherwise, however, Kestrel instead resorts to complaining incessently about her misfortune (despite being surrounded by poverty and slavery). The novel attempts to make her appear sympathetic to the slave-class of Herrani, and a kind and thoughtful master by freeing her childhood slave, yet aside from this one example of mercy, Kestrel is shown to be indifferent to any other form of injustice. Indeed, the very premise of the book is that she engages in slave trading by buying one. I didn't find her amiable or sympathetic in the slightest, and her poor-little-rich-girl consciousness didn't win her over any more than her otherwise dull-nature.
And speaking of dullness, how on earth is the reader supposed to believe that Kestrel is so brilliant strategically? Her ability to think of obvious schemes that have somehow escaped the notice of other trained military personal doesn't serve to make her look brilliant, but it does beg the question as to how exactly the Valorian conquerors have maintained their control of the land. Other than the last quarter of the book Kestrel is shown to be remarkably unobservant (failing to arouse suspicion in regards to Arin's unusual requests to have free periods of wandering in the city with a very vague explanation, his perfect Valorian and his expert knowledge of weapons which should ring alarm bells for any slave master). Additionally, her intellect is attempted to be supported by the tired, protagonist-is-intelligent-bescause-she-doesnt-like-girly-things trope, which is offset against Jess, the hopeless and unintelligent best friend/sidekick who, coincidentally, loves dresses.
The only positive part of this book was perhaps the delicate dealing of the love interest between slave and master. Although the love story wasn't entirely believable, at least it wasn't a clear and creepy power imbalance. Arin is constructed as a slave who unusually doesn't seem to act as an obedient slave should (yet another example of the apparent lack observation by Kestrel), and thus, he doesn't appear to act outside his free will.
Overall, I found the story lacking in world building, even though there was a great opportunity to delve into an exciting and believable fantasy universe. I found this novel to be one of disappointing lost opportunity, and for this reason (despite a fast-paced plot) cannot justify a rating of over two stars.