The Winner's Curse has some great things going for it. I loved the political plots, the sometimes infuriating slow-burn romance, and the fact that all of the characters are layered and complex. I am also thankful that the author could have steered the story in the direction of a convoluted love-triangle and chose not to go there (at least not yet).
While I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who loves a solid, well-written fantasy it is not without flaws. The most ridiculous aspect of the story is that Valorian women have two choices when they come of age: join the military and dedicate their lives to the service of the empire (the implication being a female soldier can never marry and will remain chaste for the rest of her life) or get married. Of course, male soldiers are held to a different standard and can choose a single life or marriage. However, someone needs to explain to me how it is socially acceptable for Kestrel to challenge a man who is not her equal in physical strength to engage in a dual that's essentially a fight to the death, yet she cannot walk in the marketplace without an escort because she is a woman?
The gender roles in this world do not make one iota of sense but I still enjoyed the story because it explores complex issues that don't have easy answers. What do you do when you have to choose between loyalty to your country and father and the life of a friend? What if you fall in love with someone whose motives completely differ from your own - do you change your plan and try to find common ground? How should one's oppressor's be treated when a shift in power occurs? Is the cost of war worth freedom and what are the consequences of survival?
I have a weakness for morality tales and The Winner's Curse excels in fleshing out these themes and making you fall in love with characters while also being repulsed by their values and decisions at the same time. This is especially true of Kestrel. There were moments aplenty in which I wanted to slap some sense into this girl. Kestrel is not an easy character to like and I certainly don't consider her a heroine. She is the General's daughter and even after learning about Arin and his history as a slave, she still staunchly defends the empire and makes some unfathomable decisions. Why? Because she is Valorian and must side with her people. It's hard to feel sympathy for a character who sees Arin and Enai as exceptions and aligns herself with a culture that enslaves an entire country and committed mass murder to achieve this purpose. Kestrel manages to position herself as some sort of victim in the events that unfold and while there might be some truth to this, her perspective remains unsettling and unless something drastically changes I am rooting for her to fail.