The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
For someone who writes contemporary middle grade, I read a LOT of YA fantasy. There's something about descending into a wholly new world, with fresh landscapes and faces, and histories that come back to haunt the characters. I've been lucky to find great reads such as Shadow & Bone, Seraphina, and Graceling. With my latest YA fantasy read, The Winner's Curse, I've discovered yet another wonderful new world that's defined as much by its inventive characters as the terrible circumstances of their meeting.
In this world, the Valorians and Herrani have been at war, and the Herrani have been conquered and enslaved within their home city. Kestrel is the privileged daughter of a Valorian General. Arin is the Herrani slave that Kestrel buys (rather impulsively) at auction. From there on, the story unfolds, slowly revealing who Kestrel and Arin really are, and what they come to mean to each other.
Along the way, Rutkoski sews careful seeds of world-building magic. She creates an environment that I can both see and smell, from the pots of colored powder in a vendor's stall to the dust-caked sweat on horseback. The unhurried pace in the opening chapters allows all of these details to sink in, while carefully revealing a steady stream of plot points that hook you right into the meat of this story: in a world where power is constantly shifting, who will come out on top?
While this is the first book in a series, the plot stands on its own, and the writing leaves nothing wanting. With gorgeous details such as the mesmerizing tile game called Bite & Sting (which you can play on the book's website!), well-rounded characters, and a twisting plot, this is one YA fantasy read that is not to be missed.
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