The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The basics

Title: The Winner’s Curse


Series: The Winner's Trilogy #1

- The Winner's Curse (March 2014)
- The Winner's Crime (March 2015)
- The Winner's Kiss (2016)

Add it: Goodreads

Goodreads Summary:

Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.

As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

Read a full summary of The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski below. If you can’t remember what happened in The Winner’s Curse and you need a refresher, then you’re in the right place.

Thanks a million to Katie of I Teach YA for this amazing recap!

In short

Kestrel is an upper-class girl living the high-life on a peninsula occupied by her people the Valorians. Kestrel accidentally buys a slave. That slave, Arin turns out to be more than she bargained for. He is smart and industrious and also happens to be plotting a revolution to take down her entire people and their way of life! The two initially do not get along but after a few games of Bite & Sting, some awkward social events and a little piano music, they end up starting to understand each others hearts. But unfortunately just as their affection begins to bloom, the revolution goes BOOM! Roles reverse. Arin is now master and Kestrel the slave.

What happened in The Winner’s Curse?

  • Kestrel lives in the quasi-greco-roman-esq city occupied by her people the Valorians. The original inhabitants of the peninsula, the Herrani, have all been enslaved in different capacities by their current oppressors.
  • Her father is General Trajan, the highest ranking military officer on the peninsula and a highly lauded war hero. It’s a lot to live up to for poor, 17 yr old Kestrel, worse, she doesn’t really know if she wants to follow in her father’s illustrious footsteps. She is happy to gamble with sailors, shop with her best friend Jess and gossip with the whose who of Valorian society.
  • On a routine outing with Jess, Kestrel accidentally finds herself in the middle of a slave auction. Up for sale is a Herrani boy touted as an excellent blacksmith and possible singer. Whether it is her wild streak, love for music or the look of defiance in the slave’s gray eyes, something pulls on Kestrel’s purse strings and she is compelled to purchase him for an exorbitant price.
  • The boy, Arin Smith, is sent to work in the estate’s stables while Kestrel continues to live her life of relatively boring luxury. They have little interaction but when they do, Kestrel and Arin are not very friendly.
  • Arin bargains to be allowed to go into the city every now and then to meet with his “sweetheart” which in reality is a ploy to meet with his auctioneer, Cheat. Cheat and Arin are preparing for a revolution that will free the Herrani from Valorian occupation. Arin is using his position within the generals walls to not only glean secrets but also amass an army’s worth of weapons.
  • Kestrel begins to take Arin as an escort with her when she ventures out into society. She learns more about him and he about her. He is moved when hears her play the piano on more than one occasion.
  • During one social outing, Arin attempts to steal a book from the home of Kestrel’s frenemy Irex (turns out Irex’s family occupies the home that used to belong to Arin’s). Instead of allowing Arin to be flogged, Kestrel challenges Irex to a duel. Arin is angered and tries to convince Kestrel to give up the duel but she will not. Kestrel wins the duel by using her wits and blackmailing Irex with news that Lady Faris’ baby is his and not that of her own husband.
  • The revolution is planned for the eve of the winter ball. Arin makes her promise NOT to drink any of the wine that night (turns out it’s poisoned). Kestrel leaves early fed up with the social pettiness of the crowd. On the carriage ride home, Arin and Kestrel admit that there some unknown growing emotion for each, there is a kiss and then there is an explosion!
  • The revolution has started, everyone at the manner is dead and now Kestrel is the slave to Arin and his Herrani friends.
  • The party moves back into Arin’s old home where Kestrel is locked up in the garden room. Tension continues to grow between the two as Arin gains political and military control over the territory. *Kestrel continues to plot her escape while helping Arin win over the peninsula (she is still not quite sure what he’s playing at). She cannot quite stop the emotional attachment she has gained for him over the past months.
  • Arin’s friend, the former auctioneer, Cheat, has his eyes on Kestrel. He attempts to force himself on her, but Arin figures out his ulterior motives and runs him though with a sword!

How did The Winner’s Curse end?

Things begin to change again after Arin kills Cheat. He rises to head the movement of Herrani taking over the peninsula. Kestrel realizes that maybe he was not playing at his emotions all along. The two spend more time together where Arin teaches Kestrel how to do all the mundane tasks she never learned as a lady of privilege. He grants her more freedom to move around the house & her request to see her best friend Jess, stricken ill after ingesting poison at the ball.

While visiting Jess, Kestrel promises her that she will make the Herrani pay for what they had done at the ball, but Kestrel is conflicted due partially to her growing feelings for Arin but also because she kind of understands the motives of her new Herrani captors. They even share a moment where Kestrel finally hears Arin sing and a very romantic cooking session (*wink, wink*). But the promise she made to when visiting Jess still weighs heavily on her mind and Kestrel finally makes her escape. She steals into the night with her favorite horse and a plan to sail to the capitol to warn her father. As she dismounts to board the ship, she runs into Arin who has followed her, the two share one last longing look and then he lets her go.

After many treacherous miles through rough seas, Kestrel finally makes it to the capitol where she is granted an audience with the emperor. He accepts what she she says as truth and Kestrel is able to negotiate a way for the Herrani to keep the peninsula but still under Valorian control. Kestrel agrees to be the delegate that works in direct contact with her former captors. She meets with Arin, the new leader of the peninsula, but has one final surprise. As part of her deal with the emperor to spare Arin and the rest of the Herrani, Kestrel has agreed to an engagement with the emperor’s son. She is engaged to be queen!

anything else

Valorian = Kestrel’s people, won the war, took over the peninsula

Herrani = Arin’s people, enslaved by the Valorians, original inhabitants of the peninsula

Bite & Sting = tile game played by Kestrel

This is a full plot summary of what happened in The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Check out our recap list for more recaps. If you can’t find what you need, you can request a recap from us!

Other recaps for this series:


  • It also may be worth mentioning the following facts about Jess’s brother, Ronan: 1. he loves Kestrel and asked her to marry him (she refused, knowing she cared about Arin), 2. he survived the poisoning attempt of the Herrani, 3. he’s currently being held prisoner in a Valorian dungeon.

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  • Gina says:

    thank you so much for this

  • […] is the recap of The Winner’s Curse, and The Winner’s Crime from their site. Beware, there are spoilers on […]

  • Caila says:

    Thank you so much for this, it’s been almost a year since I read this book and I think it’s about time I continue, and this saves me from having to reread it, much appreciated.

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