Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the best fantasy writers (or writers in general) around, so it was an excellent reading journey through the fictional Tang Dynasty land of Kitai. However, the editing in this could have been so much better. Beautiful passages often were made redundant by constantly repeating and rephrasing things previously said, in often the same way. And the overall slow pace and lack of climactic resolution would give traditional fantasy fans some pause.
"We All Looked Up" gives end-of-the-world premise like you see in the movie "Melancholia" or in the YA series "Life As We Knew It" about a catastrophe event that makes characters reevaluate their lives in the wake of a possible and sudden end. Only this "Breakfast Club" meets a giant meteor book lacks that sort of harrowing tone you read in stories and ends up with a lot of plots dropped for stupid love triangles and a really dismal portrayal of the three female characters in particular.
Anita's once regimented life leads her to abandoning her control freak parents and pursue life as a musician...except it's eclipsed by her feelings for resident slacker and asshole accomplice. Her storyline about finding purpose is resolved by them sleeping together.
Eliza's life was ruined by one kiss with someone else's boyfriend, leading her to be ostracized and then claim the "slut" label as a way to empower herself (yeah, if you're rolling your eyes at this, join the club). Her photographs and blog were super popular at showing how society was coming apart at the seam, her dad is dying of cancer and their house actually gets burned down and she doesn't know if he's alive or dead...but really she just wants to cuddle with the guy who actually was responsible for the whole kissing fiasco in the first place, so whatever it's true love.
Misery a.k.a. Samantha really doesn't even get enough of a backstory or motivation to explain how she is the way she is except she likes the resident bad boy "Bobo" and is plot motivation for a really dumb conflict that gets one of them killed. She's mostly dropped off at the end.
It took me forever to finish this mostly because the back second half became such a drag but people who prefer their end of the world stories not so depressing as "The Road" and like teenage relationship drama, complete with lying/misunderstandings keeping characters apart could find something to enjoy about it. But if this was the last book I'd have time to read, I'd definitely skip it.
An uneven collection of stories detailing the events leading to a school shooting and exploring the psychology behind the shooter, Kirby Matheson. Unfortunately, the least successful of the bunch (including one from the perspective of the gun itself as it opines about purpose and morality while making the shooter sound like some put upon martyr) drag everything down to where the better ones can't salvage the tone. Some stories are only the most tangientally related, and the ones that focus on the victims keep them passive or, worse, tonally indebted to the shooter for not killing them.
If you are interested in the collection, the two that produce a more nuanced view of it, I would recommend Beth Revis' tale about the boy who was once rescued from bullying by Kirby and reconsiders the act as maybe something selfless and self-seeking, and Courtney Summer's from the perspective of one of Kirby's tormentors who survives and deals with the complicated fallout while maintaining his previous characterization as a monstrous asshole but fleshed out in motivations.
Otherwise I would recommend Hate List or Silent Alarm for stories that deal with this unfortunate phenomenon. They focus on one perspective but show a more in depth view to all parties involved than the mixed bag of this collection.
Erin Bow writes books for me.
Now, I don't mean that literally, she doesn't even know me, but so rarely do you find an author who not only writes well, but writes to your predilections. Someone who avoids popular cliches you find tiresome, who ruminates on themes that sometimes are overlooked, and digs up ideas that set your brain's gears spinning off into action. She is the kind of author who writes off-beat or strange meshes of genres that hit all my sweet spots. I loved her Plain Kate and felt my heart crushed at Sorrow's Knot, so I was willing to read whatever story she came up with. Even if it involved a lot of animal husbandry (which, in fact, this one does).
The Scorpion Rules has one of those fantastical dystopian genre premises that give a lot of preconceived notions of how it should go. There are child sacrifices and evil overlords, idealistic youths and conflicts between love and destiny. But each of these premises are given small turns, twists, or outright refutations. And none of this is done as a metatextual rebuttal to YA juggernauts like The Hunger Games, but a different concept that spins out into its own way.
The plot seems like a regular dystopian setup: the world's resources have been squandered, and that leads to rebellions and wars. The answer to stopping the wars have been a return to the old system of hostage taking, where each ruler had to give up their heir as a sacrifice to keep them from going to war needlessly. Otherwise, the ruler would be essentially executing their child as the first blood. And, aside from some semantic quibbles I would have with this set up, it's a lot more plausible than some of the other plots I've read. Or, at least the snarky AI that's behind all the oppressive rules makes it easier to accept.
It also runs counter-current to most YA narratives. Where survival and freedom are the most coveted prizes, what would it mean to know your life in captivity may be the thing keeping your countrymen from slaughter? Also, where most YA show how a society has obviously turned to the worst, and most rebellions lead to the society approaching something closer our status quo, what about a necessary evil that actually does prevent war?
Greta is an interesting protagonist. I know other people have said she is dull and passive, but I think the best description for her is stoic. This is a character who was taken at five years old to be a hostage, ruled over by an omnipresent AI that has blown up cities for any perceived infraction, and told that her life is forfeit if her country goes to war: even if it is only in defense of itself. That circumstance would create a learned helplessness in anyone. So, naturally, Greta accepts the rules she cannot change and seeks to bear them with dignity. Including one line where she refuses to "gawp" and I award points to any story with the accurate usage of gawp in it. In fact, one of the more sadistic characters marvels at how she "can just take it" and accept this abuse, as both a condemnation and praise of her. And that complicated nature is why I find her compelling.
Her dialogue is very precise, and there is an overwhelming sense of resignation to much of it. The first chapters discuss her growing awareness that one of Talis's executioners might be coming for her, and her small permissible act of kindness to hold the hand of the boy who was taken instead. Reading her narration is often an exercise in what she doesn't say, not like the unreliable narrators that make readers guess between truth and lies, but readers who sift through semantics and see how Greta shies away from reporting some of the more horrendous (or in the case of goat mating: awkwardly graphic) scenarios and holds back unpleasantness even from herself.
Elián is the opposite of Greta, a boy who was never expected to rule and thus reacts to becoming a Child of Peace hostage the way anyone else would: immediate and futile rebellion. I like that he is the counterpoint to her: brash where she is circumspect, passionate where she is measured. At one point he says she sounds just like a textbook, but she uses that to spin off a veiled warning at his plans of escape, subtle enough for their robot overlords to miss in its doublespeak. Elián is the chaotic good to her lawful, and I find it easy to believe that they would change each other profoundly in their time together.
I also love that they both love each other, but it is not the romantic love so often touted in YA. I love that Greta doesn't bend the rules because of her all-consuming passion for him, but because she promised she wouldn't let him die. I love that she loves him and loves someone else at the same time [spoiler]and I love that the someone else is also a girl that compliments her diplomatically careful persona[/spoiler]. I also really love how these two different interests are not presented in a way that has competing sides of a love triangle, but different facets that are both responsible for Greta's growth throughout the novel.
As for the plot itself, I really don't want to spoil what happens. Only to say that Bow does not attempt to follow formula, and people who expect a lot of the similar earmarks of dystopian fiction, such as passionate ideals and breathless pacing, will be very disappointed to read a story where much of the rebellion comes from silent acquiescence and withholding their true feelings about circumstances.The finale is not a climax between two major forces, but something far more philosophical [spoiler] namely: a transhumanism manifesto as Greta decides to bargain her life to join Talis as an AI, the last 50 pages dealing with how she has retained some parts of her humanity and also how much she has lost. [/spoiler] The pace of the book is slow and methodical, like a diplomatic negotiation that peels back layers to get to the truth of it.
And that's precisely why I love it.
Sarah Ockler promises a dreamy and romantic version of "The Little Mermaid," loosely retold in a way that's more Disney than Andersen (mostly because: spoiler, it doesn't end in a horrifically depressing mess). Eylse is from Tobago, recovering in the Northwest Coast's Artagatis Cove after a sailing accident robbed her of her voice. There she is taken under the wing of her Aunt Ursula, a hippie witch who is not the type to sing "Poor Unfortunate Souls" so much as let Elyse cope with the trauma by silently observing the cove's summer flings and politics.
Of course that doesn't mean she doesn't get sucked up into the goings on anyway. When two of the powerful men, Mayor Katzenberg and Mr. Kane, strike up a bet over selling the land to real estate developers, Eylse finds out that she might have to help notorious playboy Christian Kane win the pirate regatta in order to keep her Aunt Ursula's home from being destroyed.
That may be the instigating plot but the novel's true focus comes in the interpersonal relationships as she is thrust into this bet. And since this is a romance, the primary one is between Elyse and Christian. At first blush, I wanted to roll my eyes at the typical playboy with a secret heart of gold they were setting up Christian to be, but he quickly shed the player status, and I was grateful for it. While he has the typical earmarks of YA love interests, Ockler keeps him from feeling too rote. Yes, he doesn't want to follow in his father's ambitious footsteps, but instead of making him a dreamy artistic type he's mostly just a privileged kid who has no ideas what to do except "not that."
The secondary characters also provide the most heart for the novel (ironic, since it's a romance). Christian's little brother, Sebastian, is a mermaid aficionado who secretly believes Eylse is a mermaid herself, and provides the major emotional moments for both Christian and Eylse to let their guard down. Sometimes he could feel like a plot device with how his desires perfectly synced up with where the story needed to go, like, for example: the scene where he insisted on a sea wedding between Christian and Eylse to get them their first kiss. But overall giving him his own struggles about wanting to be in the girls-only mermaid parade and small details made him endearing instead of exposition-y.
Eylse herself is a big draw to the story. She's already steeped in this romantic surrealism with her culture and her past, being the youngest of six sisters and born in the ocean, but the tone is consistent and her bitterness and trauma ring true. I doubt anyone expecting completely grounded narration would want to pick up a little mermaid retelling, so I found the poetic nature of her thoughts and writing to be well characterized, and I love having a narrator who came from another culture, one steeped in mysticism and music, having to find her legs again, so to speak.Readers can believe in a character who thinks in symbolism and makes pacts with the sea in this context.
Also? This book is one of the sexy ones, meaning there's talk of sex and sex positive portrayals. My personal tastes found it the perfect balance of letting it color the narrative without making it the finish line to the Eylse/Christian relationship. There's no extensive "slot A into tab B" play-by-play, but people wanting a clean read are going to be flustered from the multiple oblique references. Including the magical unicorn references of female masturbation presented as a natural matter of course with no shaming or issues whatsoever.
Awww yeah. Body language...
Ockler's story veers for muddled resolutions instead of clear-cut, and circuitous motivations instead of straightforward good and evil. It's very much the kind of summer read you bask in instead of devouring at a breakneck pace. Readers who look at the sea and imagine something underneath the surface will be the ones most rewarded with a tender and mystical retelling that's really more about rediscovering yourself through great loss than steamy hormonal flings. Although the ones reading it for steamy hormonal flings won't be disappointed either.
Worth chasing down a copy.
Every book gets a "gimmie" in terms of "I will wholeheartedly accept this premise without nitpicking" and "When" had an interesting one about a girl who could see the date of a person's death written on their forehead. Of course this might lead to some problems if she is accurately able to predict someone's death who ends up murdered, right? Sounds like a fun paranormal mystery romp.
What I couldn't get over was how utterly inept and wrong the law enforcement had to be written for this plot to continue. FBI agents stalking, wire tapping and basically holding teenagers without bail on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. For one, they show up less than twenty four hours about a disappearance with no signs of foul play and proceed to harass the main character about her involvement instead of looking for anything resembling evidence or alibis. Yes, they basically accuse her of being responsible before they even find out where she was when the victim disappeared. I totally get how they could be mistrusting of this weird power she has, but they're basically the antagonists for most of the book due to this outrageous fixation.
Some people might be able to ignore this plot bulldozer but for me it was too present and the character interactions and motivations were too slight to overcome it. And the ending went into pulpy real fast, even after the FBI guys came around. Which is a shame because we all know FBI agents reluctantly involved in supernatural events could be amazing.
"George" is the simple story of a child named George who wants to play Charlotte in "Charlotte's Web" and the more complicated story of a transgender child protagonist and the expectations and identity struggles that come with it. The author presents their case with both sincerity and affection, albeit some moments of didactic exposition that sound more like they came from a pamphlet than actual people. Classroom bully is a hateful jerk to everyone, best friend is endlessly understanding even when George takes her frustration out on her, mother is understanding enough not to villianize but not understanding enough to remove conflict, wash, rinse, repeat.
Let's be honest, these are untested waters and it's a wonderful thing that "George" is there to be a talking point for a conversation that should be broached. However, this falls under the struggles of many trailblazers in that it feels more like an issue book rather than a full fledged story with characters that happen to have an issue in it. It clocks in at not even two hundred pages so I think the author decided they would prioritize the important talking points but neglected a lot of details that would better compliment a multifaceted issue with characters that had more to them.
For a different comprehensive children's book of transgender subject matter I would go with "I am Jazz" before "George." It comes from a real transgender child whose experience is not universal, but genuine in its presentation.
Ann Angel has assembled a collection of short stories about "secret selves" from a variety of YA authors, from established ones like Chris Lynch and Ellen Witlinger, to debut authors. Some of the secrets are obvious ones teens would face, like their sexual activities or their outsider quirks. A few of the stories have secrets that manifest in extraordinary ways, from guardian angels to secret spies.
Weakest: "We Were Together" deals with secrets and consequences in a truncated way that's pretty unsatisfying, like it was the start of a longer story that got cut short because of the length requirements. "The We-Are-Like-Everyone-Else Game" deals with toxic friendships and family secrets but the two don't coalesce as well (and maybe it's because I read a vignette about a family that deals with hoarding right before this and it pulled it off better).
Interesting: "Partial Reinforcement" and "When We Were Wild" convey the complicated nature of their main characters, and the conflicting interests of their story kind of transferred to my reading for it, but in the best ways.
Best ones: "A Thousand Words," "A Moment, Underground" and "Quick Change," I don't want to spoil anything about them, so I'll say "Quick Change" is the story I wanted more of the most. "A Moment, Underground" perfectly captured the moment of burying or keeping a secrets. And "A Thousand Words" was an amazingly constructed story of how secrets can be different things to different people.
Slightly off-tangent but worth reading: "Storm Clouds Fleeing From the Wind" is a gorgeous fairy tale set in a fantasy Japan. "Cupid's Beaux" is entertaining, but obviously scraped from the author's other series and clunky to read on its own merits because so much time is spent dumping worldbuilding exposition in it, but it's still intriguing for those who want to read more. "Little Wolf and the Iron Pin" is another fairy tale with some Bluebeard overtones, short and to the point so to speak.
While "Salvage" is elegantly written and thoughtful, the slow pacing over 500 pages makes it a novel hard to recommend for most teens. Those that are into speculative fiction heavy on world-building and social critique will glean worthwhile meaning from it, but they have to overcome a slow winding plot that lets its most interesting aspects give it sparks of color instead of making it the propelling cause. it's almost like reading a YA novel from Margaret Atwood crossed with China Miéville, thick with intent yet not easily approached.
"How Lunchbox Jones Saved Me From Robots, Traitors, and Missy the Cruel" by Jennifer Brown boasts a trifecta of topics and excitement in this middle grade novel. Luke is a seventh grader who loves to play video games and is roped into being part of an after school robotics team, complete with the odd assortment of misfits, including the title's infamous Lunchbox Jones. This sounds like a great setup, especially for STEM reading, and Jennifer Brown has a quirky sense of humor that creates vivid scenarios to mixed results...
Since there are a lot of positives and negatives, it seems easier to break it down by the different topics in the book:
Robots. With a robot on the cover and small programming descriptions at the start of each chapter, I thought this would be the most explored topic but it's mostly a plot device to get Luke involved with a band of misfits. After one disastrous robot run, Luke gives up on programming the robot, and there really isn't a lot of description in how robotics work, so it might be disappointing for kids wanting to learn about the science behind it. The band of misfits aren't very compelling either, mostly a group of kids with one weird quirk who don't contribute to the robot except to meddle and never engage with Luke or each other in dynamic ways until the robot competition where they're all best friends.
Traitors. The best part of the novel where it clearly has the most heart is in Luke's strained relationship with his brother, who is going off to the Marines. As eccentric as his family dynamics are, these are the relationships that ring true. Luke's betrayal of his brother's enlistment is the part given the most naturally unfolding plot, and actually ties in with Luke's character arc. The enlistment is dealt with in a multifaceted way, with Luke and his mother being worried, his dad and grandparents enthusiastic. While other people might find these parts dragging the otherwise brisk and easily consumable chapters, I felt like this was the greatest success in the narrative.
Missy the Cruel, Missy is a bully so relentlessly nasty, it's hard to believe she got away with her behavior for that long. Every piece of her dialogue is an insult, and she goes so far as to sabotage the robot when she moves to a new school, complete with a supervillain-esque "I will destroy you losers" speech in front of their teacher. The small aside given to her about her father issues doesn't offset the described years of cruelty, and there's scant interaction for Brown to showcase her behavior beside "the most unpleasant person ever," so when Luke admits near the end that she's probably not so bad on the inside, it doesn't feel like he grew or understood her but it's just something the novel is trying to moralize.
Lunchbox Jones and his relationship with Luke seems structured as the backbone of the novel, but it takes 2/3rds of the way for them to try talking to each other, so by the time they become friends it feels like it just sort of happened off page. But the revelation between Lunchbox Jones's disappearance galvanizing Luke to confront him about it and, in turn, confront his own avoidance of his brother is an excellent culmination of the story's many plot points.
In summation: there's a lot going on in this middle grade novel. While it falls back on quirky asides and fart jokes to keep reader's attention, there's a thread of a real emotional interest woven in the story, even if it's cluttered with the buzzes and whistles of a robotic theme.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from Quirk Books in exchange for an honest review.
Much like Arthur Dent's Hitchhiker's Guide that insists all you really need is a towel to get by, Sam Magg's "Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy" sets out to be "the ultimate handbook for ladies living the nerdy life." Clocking in a two hundred and seven pages there's a very diverse subject matter to be covered by a very short volume. And begs the question, just what kind of a guide will it be? Will it work as a manifesto to celebrate all things nerdy? A glossary of things you never thought to google or read an F.A.Q for? A recommendation list of new geek things to try based on your tried and true interests?
The answer is it's a little bit of everything, but spreads itself thin so it's not really substantive to any of them in a way that makes it worthwhile.
Good stuff first: the cover and illustrations have a playful charm to them. Kelly Bastow's pictures were cute and more of them would have probably delivered a better playfulness the narration was trying for. And some might argue goes against the handbook idea, but it seemed mostly trying to engage through entertainment rather than information.
Narration-wise, Maggs clearly has spent a lot of time in the various ares of nerddom, and it never sounds forced or insincere when she drops a random aside in her guidebook. And while I may personally disagree with some of her opinions* I can't fault her enthusiasm. The section where she got other professional nerd ladies to give their opinions on the phenomenon was exactly the kind of thing I wanted more out of the book. Sometimes the best guides are the ones that have people who have gone down that path just talking about their journey, and I think the tone of the guide lent itself more to that style than straight informative. At it's best of enthusiastic and informative were her rundowns of several fandoms that have strong female characters and appealing themes for their fangirls. If the guide was 60% that and 40% the other things she mentioned, I would have loved it a lot more.
The weaker parts of the guide tended to fall in how the information was presented. While chapters were separated out for different things, such as cosplay or con-going getting their own self-contained chapters, there was a heavy emphasis on consumerism as fandom. Fandoms were presented by accessories instead of actions, and only one of the fangirl activities ostensibly was something without a lot of expendable cash could do: writing fanfiction (drawing fanart was mentioned but not really touched upon). There was a section on critical reviewing of fandoms, but it seemed a little divorced in tone from the rest of the book.
In general, the taxonomy of fandoms is very uneven. Some of the big ones, such as Harry Potter and Star Trek, are given their (deserved) sections, while others are shoved into a conglomeration. For example, Marvel and DC are given distinct fandoms, but all of Japanese animation is shoved into the otaku section. Another aside, while the author acknowledges that otaku is not a polite term in Japanese, saying it's somehow not as bad in the Western world (like saying obsessed is better than zealot) doesn't mean you should use it. The weirdest one is Superwholock being listed instead of the separate fandoms of Supernatural, Dr Who and Sherlock, in spite of the fact that there are many fans who support their canon show only and dislike this mega fandom crossover. It makes the choices seem very arbitrary and not designated by any observable reasons.
The terminology is basically Tumblr-speak, and even the author seems to know how terribly dated it would become when writing the glossary. It's written in the vernacular of someone who fangirls on Tumblr, including a Tumblr-version on Feminism 101, which gives it an authenticity, but may not speak to the tabletop nerd who really just wants to go to Dragon*Con and not talk about her feels. For people likely to get into Tumblr, this is one of those first hand sources that might pique their interest.
The main complication I have with this book is determining who it's for. It's not a good guide to give a fledgling nerd, with too many inside jokes and not enough concrete information except for the lists of outside resources. The fandoms listed are mostly presented as how the fans display their interests, which makes it unhelpful for recommendations except for the small section on the back, which was one of the best parts of the guides. Likewise it's not quite funny or detailed enough to give to a nerd who may have one or two interests represented in the handbook.
And the biggest intended audience hurdle: the age range seems all over the place. Harry Potter and YA novels do have adult fans, but the majority of their targeted fans are tweens and teens. At the same time, there's a lot of assumptions that these geeks have transportation and money for cons, can get tattoos, can drink at a bar, and generally the guide seems to be directed at someone with an adult's access but a younger person's sensibilities. That leaves it coming off as condescending at times, going over really obvious points like how friendships work or why you should probably not get a tattoo on a whim.
In short: there's obvious love behind this guide and it might be just the spark to give to a fangirl looking to explore the wide world of geeky media. However, there's an uneven aspect to it that prevents this guide from wider appeal, so you should probably ask yourself would they enjoy Tumblr? If yes, give it a try. If no, skip it.
*In pure nerd fashion, the pedantic, personal nitpicking not part of the review.
Opinions disagreed with in the book contain, but are not limited to: DC's nu52 being a good starting point for anything and not a messy soft reboot they're retconning again because it's a giant mess (Batwoman's good though). Star Trek 09 being a good starting point and not some flashy but substance lacking re-imagining, also the sequel sucks. Superwholock in general and any shipping related to it. "I'm the Doctor, not a companion" but maybe they want to be one of the companions. Donna Noble > all. Not to mention putting down one female fandom (Twilight) for another (Buffy)...even if I personally concur, a feminism manifesto about how all are welcome is the wrong place for that. Ramona Flowers has most definitely worked out, she is a goddam delivery girl who runs all over for her job and can kick ninja ass. You put Attack on Titan but not Utena for anime? I WILL FIGHT YOU!
When I heard how Jandy Nelson's "I'll Give You the Sun" won the Printz, a lot of the reviews boiled down to the story's surrealist narration. Those who liked it, loved the book. Those who didn't found it tedious.
I found it okay, but mostly a brightly colored varnish because, without the surrealistic blue barf and quirky superstitions of their characters, this novel doesn't hold together very well in any test of grounding it by characterizations, situations, or relationships. And magical realism or surrealism works best when it becomes a distortion from the foundations of the world we see.
The way Nelson wove the two halves of the story in past and present was very well planned out, but the manner in getting them around often resorted to destined instant love, strained conflicts arising from rom-com levels of not bothering to have simple conversations, and secondary characters acting as mouthpieces for the twins' validation.and struggles rather than actual human beings. The worst cases being Oscar, a walking bundle of English bad boy cliches, and Heather, Noah's best friend who is never given a personality beyond "once liked Noah and found out he was gay."
While it's not a bad book, I'm still very surprised to see so many people think it worthy of the Printz. Its moments of artistic poignancy were well done, but a lot of the book felt like strained symbolism or random digressions involving orgasmic donuts. I like my surrealism to transcend, not resort to cliches so frequently.
P.S. I'm also surprised it got a Stonewall honor. It's good that we've gotten to the point where our gay protagonists can be complete shits (and Noah is definitely a jealous and possessive jerk toward his love interest), but the resolution for their conflict is taken care of off screen a few pages from the end, and in a manner that's way too tidy for something as egregious as outing the person you loved right after they explained how they were afraid for their safety and scholarship if it came out. Surely there were more LGBTQ fiction stories published this year that are worthier?
A very interesting premise based on Russian mythology. Baker takes the cautionary tale of Baba Yaga and spins it into a curse that young Serafina must cope with when she is thrust into the job. She can answer the first question anyone asks of her, but only one. Not only that, doing so causes her to age at an increased pace. This means Serafina has to deal with losing her past life and possibly lose her life if too many people ask her questions before she can find the magic potion that reverses her aging.
While the idea is wonderful and makes for a lot of interesting dilemmas, such as the consequences of what the truth might be, Baker really doesn't capitalize on them very much. Most of the novel involves her answering questions, going to different places, and sometimes running away from rough looking thugs by calling on the chicken hut to move to another place. Serafina is largely passive and leaves the curse breaking for her childhood love to do off-page. There are many ways for a character to be strong, but the major problem is that Serafina doesn't really grow or change based on these very trying circumstances, and the people who are changed by her questions often never come back into the story save for three people or so. Various interactions with villagers asking her questions make her annoyed, sad or hopeful, but even the moments with the talking skulls or her cat seem to be pleasant filler rather than propelling the story.
It's a nice novel, but one that lacks a real character arc or forward momentum for kids who need their adventures to have tension. Perfectly nice for those who like a leisurely paced fairy tale inspired fantasy with good, if not very multifaceted, characters.
"The Winner's Curse" is a phrase used to describe a buyer simultaneously winning something but also losing by paying too high a price. It's also the title of a book that was written to try and blend a high fantasy strategy setting with some forbidden love because of two cultures/nationalities at odds with each other." Which sounds promising from the synopsis...unfortunately it came at the price of "this love is forbidden not just because of the cultures but slavery!"
And that is where I realized I made a bad time/enjoyment bargain.
Kestrel is the daughter of a Valorian general, living in the lap of luxury and being a self-invested teenager. Hardships in her life mainly deal with the constraints of having a father doesn't like her wandering out by herself. The first chapter involves her being dragged to a slave auction by her friend, Jess, and impulsively deciding to bid on a slave when she sees how obstinate he is in the face of the auctioneer's demands to look good for potential sellers.
"But his refusal touched Kestrel."
Okay, that's a promising sign...
"The stony set of the slave's shoulders reminded her of herself, when her father demanded something that she couldn't give."
...annnnnnnnd we go straight into Kestrel embodying a First World Problem's meme.
Let's be fair, I never expected the book to treat Kestrel's blase attitude about slavery as anything but a glaring flaw and part of an ongoing character arc. It does. But it's really difficult to like her for other reasons when her complaints about being restricted by her father basically amount to "I don't want to do adult things like join the military or choose a husband, but I also don't want you to treat me like a child." And then compare her feelings to someone she just paid for who obviously is not okay with the arrangement.
The narration doesn't help offset this character by having Kestrel set as the clear primary protagonist. Arin isn't even named beyond "the slave" in his own chapter until he gives his name to Kestrel in their early meetings. There are stylistic reasons why his identity was revealed this way, but none of them do anything to help enforce the part where his story is supplement to hers. His suffering and conflicts only manifest in how they make Kestrel react and sympathize with him. And it begins a worrying trend of the novel to gloss over the whole "sold into slavery and family killed" backstory he had gone through except in how they can be related to by Kestrel.
This is also to point out how all the other Herrani aren't even given the consideration of their subjugation. Only a few are given enough time to be called characters and not background dressing. Besides Arin, Enai is pretty much the only other Herrani that Kestrel gives a second thought. She was Kestrel's nursemaid, and supposedly like a second mother to her, which is why Kestrel asked her father to free Enai as his birthday present to her. It was supposed to be this big deal that shows how Kestrel isn't just some prejudiced brat, but it seems pretty hollow since Kestrel never asked about Enai's family before the war, and the novel never gives Enai anything to do except comfort Kestrel and warn Arin not to hurt her while she's lying on her deathbed, probably to give Arin that last nudge that maybe if some other Herrani who was her slave loved her that he could do it too.
Kestrel: Hey, so you know that time when you called my people soulless after my friend took your god's love in vain?
Arin: You mean that time where I revealed I understood Valorian perfectly and was eavesdropping on you, saying that you only think you know the truth because none of my enslaved people would call you a liar and risk their lives. That time?
Kestrel: Yeah. I thought that was awesome and, in the spirit of totally being a great political strategist, want you to tell me the truth from now on. Le's be confidants!
Arin: ...I'll do it if you give me access to your father's house and the ability to go outside unsupervised into the city. To do...things. Things that totally aren't gathering information to try and overthrow your society.
Kestrel: That sounds great! I totally see no downside in this plan at all!
It doesn't matter how many times you have other characters say Kestrel is clever or how many strategy games she wins when these are her actions. At least if she were written as sheltered and naive daughter of the conquering people, it wouldn't be so irritating to see her thoughtlessly perpetuate horrible things. Instead, the narrative makes half-hearted attempts at trying to show she's better than those other Valorians who thoughtlessly go along with all their societal conventions. She's a rebel. She doesn't want to join the military and subjugate more people, she wants to play piano!
"What do you think I have had to swallow, these past ten years? What do you think I have had to do to survive?"They stood before the palace door. "Truly," she said, "I haven't the faintest interest. You may tell your sad story to someone else."
As a whole, the enslaved people thing was really anesthetized in the story. Very little attention was paid to their lives, almost as if the whole slave dynamic was mostly used to bolster the forbidden nature of the two protagonists' romance instead of serving as the world changing catalyst it would be in any other circumstance. Since a lot of other people don't seem to have problems with those priorities, it's not as if it doesn't nullify "The Winner's Curse" as an entertaining read. However, I'm one of the contingent that found the focus on romance above all other elements a detriment to the story, leaving me with characters I didn't care for and an ending that was neither happy, bittersweet or any way satisfying.
If you want to read a story that treats the dynamic of slavery between two people with actual weight and seriousness, try "The Wicked and the Just" by J. Anderson Coats
If you want to read a story that's heavy on political intrigue and has romance only as a side accent, read the Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner.
If you want to read a romance with fantasy and heavy social commentary as window dressing for forbidden love epics, then the Winner's Curse is for you.