The Winner's Curse: The Winner's Trilogy, Book 1

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
The Winner's Curse: The Winner's Trilogy, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Depth and action in fantasy tale of star-crossed lovers.

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Kids say

age 13+
Based on 5 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Battle strategy is discussed in detail, both from the perspective of a large, experienced army and an underground movement trying to oppose it. The author's note mentions a connection to the world created for Winner's Curse and "the Greco-Roman period after Rome had conquered Greece and enslaved its population in the expected way of the time." Readers can look up more about that period and make comparisons.

Positive Messages

Star-crossed lovers are at the center of the story, leading to this question: What's stronger -- a sense of loyalty to country, family, and way of life or the love of one person? The brutality of war and the cost of freedom also are explored. One character is willing to be as brutal and merciless as his enemies, and another is not.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Kestrel and Arin are naturally at war with themselves as much as with their enemy. Kestrel is a strong female character with a sharp mind for strategy. When society catches her caring for her slave more than is proper, she fights rumors head-on. Arin is determined to defeat his enemy but through cunning and not merciless killing.


Mostly aftermaths of battles are described -- piled-up bodies of people poisoned, a floor slick with blood after the massacre of prisoners. A few scenes describe brutality as it happens: the slitting of a throat and the sexual assault of woman, stopped after a forced kiss and a black eye. A duel ends in minor injuries. Talk of slave whippings and maltreatment -- if a runaway slave is caught, ears and noses are cut off. Mention that Kestrel's mother died from plague when she was 8 and that she watched the doctor who treated her illness kill himself. Another sad death from illness and one near-death from poisoning. Exploding cannons cause much of the battle damage.


A couple of steamy kisses. Talk of slave owners having affairs with slaves and how to be discreet about it.


Really mild: "damn" twice, "hell," and "ass."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Kestrel is 17 and drinks wine at dinner with her father. Teens and adults drink at fashionable parties.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Curse is the first in a planned fantasy trilogy. At the center are star-crossed lovers who only sneak in a couple of guilty kisses. The uprising of a slave population, naturally, includes some pretty bloody moments. Mostly the aftermath is described -- piled-up bodies and blood everywhere -- but a few scenes describe brutality as it happens: There's a throat slitting and a sexual assault on a woman, stopped after a forced kiss and a black eye. Language is mild ("damn" twice, "hell," and "ass") and drinking by the 17-year-old protagonist includes wine at dinner with her father and at upper-crust parties. Readers will learn a bit about battle strategy -- both main characters are quite good at it -- and have a chance to ponder the brutality of war and slavery and what freedom is worth.

User Reviews

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Teen, 15 years old Written bytheladyawesome December 14, 2019

Refreshing take on YA fantasy

I loved the worldbuilding in this one, and how the plot took a while to unfold but once it did, it shook the world. I also loved how the main characters were sm... Continue reading
Teen, 17 years old Written bylalaland111111111 February 25, 2017

What's the story?

Kestrel didn't know what possessed her to buy a slave when she and her best friend Jess ended up at the market by mistake. Something about the defiant look in his eyes drew her in. She takes him back to the estate she shares with her father, a general in the Valoran army. At first, the man is given work as a blacksmith, but it's not long before Kestrel selects him as an escort into town one day and into society on another. As she gets to know him, she finally discovers his real name -- Arin -- and that he's a master of a parlor strategy game she used to always win; she has finally met her match. Suddenly the two are grist for the rumor mill, only made worse when Kestrel defends Arin against a stealing charge at a society party. But Arin doesn't want her to defend him. He knows that once Kestrel discovers his secret plans against those who enslave him -- her people -- she'll regret anything she ever felt for him.

Is it any good?

Take the book cover's 90 percent pink frill and lipstick and 10 percent intrigue of "look, she's got a dagger in her hand" and flip the percentages: There's the real essence. Despite a couple of society balls and some star-crossed lovers, this book gets quite cerebral. Arin and Kestrel's relationship builds carefully and is pretty complex, especially as the power dynamic shifts. How Arin manages to break slave rules and enjoy parlor games with Kestrel seems a bit odd, but that's usually when Kestrel lets her guard down the most, pushing the story forward.

Most writers would have enough on their plates just keeping Kestrel and Arin's slow-simmering relationship this full of tension. Rutkoski, however, keeps the political intrigue high at the same time. The building tension between Arin and the leader of the rebellion adds quite a bit to the last third of The Winner's Curse. And the last few pages will make reading the sequel pretty irresistible.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the title Winner's Curse. What does it mean? What does it have to do with the main characters?

  • Kestrel and Arin are a perfect example of star-crossed lovers, like Romeo and Juliet. What other pairs in literature fit the definition?

  • There are two more books to read in this trilogy. Are you roped in? What is appealing to you about this series? What is different from other fantasy series you enjoy?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and romance

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