When Valorian-born Kestrel purchases a Herrani slave at an auction, she instantly regrets her choice. But how was she to know that by buying Arin, she was sealing the fate of her people and her empire? In the sequel to The Winner’s Curse, Kestrel and Arin find themselves in deeper danger than they ever could’ve imagined. Engaged to the emperor’s son, Kestrel makes the risky decision of playing a double agent to save Arin and his people. But to spare his life, she has to continue lying to him, a decision that drives him to seeking the help of allies overseas. Marie Rutkoski, the mind behind this epic world of deception and lies, talks with us here about the connection between loss and responsibility in The Winner’s Crime, the changing relationship between Kestrel and Arin, and the time she decided to live in Russia.
Bookish: The first book in this series is titled The Winner’s Curse. Can you tell us about what that means and if you’ve ever experienced it?
Marie Rutkoski: The winner’s curse describes what happens at an auction where you win, but the only reason you’ve won is that you have paid more than everyone else. So you’ve paid more than what other people have decided the item was worth. In economic theory—or at least, what I understand of it—“the winner’s curse” describes the moment of winning (later, you might discover that the item is worth more than you’ve paid). So in a way, every winner of every auction suffers the winner’s curse—at least, in the moment of winning.
I won an auction last year for tickets to see Cinderella on Broadway. It was for a fundraiser for my son’s school, and I loved the idea of taking him to see it. But I paid way more than what the tickets were worth! I can’t really regret it, because it was for a good cause… though it is true that once I won, I had a deep, sinking feeling in my stomach, the organ of my body that is psychically linked to my credit card.
Bookish: General Trajan, Kestrel’s father, holds honor and service to one’s people in the highest regard. He places expectations on Kestrel that she often fails to meet because they conflict with her own passions (such as music). Have you ever followed a passion that those around you didn’t approve of or understand? How did you reconcile what you loved with what others thought?
MR: After graduating from college, I decided to move to Russia with the person I was dating at the time. My parents were appalled. My plan was to live in Moscow for a year, apply for graduate school in the fall, and see where things would go from there. This was in 1999. I was 22. I understand my parents’ freak-out. They didn’t approve of my romantic choice (they were right; he was a disaster), and they certainly didn’t approve of the location. But I was determined. I needed an adventure. I wanted to take a risk.
I lasted three months in Moscow. It wasn’t the city, the language, or the culture (I was attracted to all three). It was the “disaster.”
It was important that I could always come home. But I didn’t want to admit the failure of my adventure, or to look too hard, perhaps, at what it meant that I wanted one. I moved to Prague. Distant relatives let me stay with them for a week. I found an apartment, I found a job. I applied to graduate school. I had one of the best years of my life.
Bookish: Something that I love and respect about this series is that we see characters making truly tough decisions. At the end of The Winner’s Curse, Arin has completely betrayed Kestrel, and she, in turn, begins lying to him about the treaty she presents him. These two cause some real (and potentially irreparable) damage to each other through treachery. Can you talk about the experience of writing such a dynamic relationship?
MR: I’m so glad you appreciate that element of The Winner’s Curse.
For me, Kestrel and Arin’s difficult relationship is strongly connected to their damaged world. Ten years ago, her people conquered and enslaved his. Kestrel and Arin are true equals in almost every way—in intelligence, qualities of the heart, moral code, passions. But the dynamic of power between them is not equal.
I think people lie when they sense an imbalance of power: when they feel weaker than their opponent, and want to hide; or when they feel stronger, and want to assert dominance. I think Kestrel and Arin feel both weaker and stronger when they lie to each other.
As a reader, it’s maddening to me when characters lie to each other—especially in a romance. It was important to me—out of respect of a reader’s frustration—to show the damage of Kestrel and Arin’s lies, and also to make sure that they had good, justifiable reasons for their lies.
Bookish: Love triangles are fairly common in young adult literature, and there was an open opportunity in the first book (Ronan) to use that trope. Did you intentionally avoid writing a love triangle?
MR: Yes. It wouldn’t have been true to my characters. Both Kestrel and Arin are very determined and loyal as individuals. It wouldn’t have made sense for either of them to be wishy-washy in love.
Bookish: Bite and Sting, a popular game that Kestrel excels at, seems to hold much greater significance than a mere game of tiles. How do you see Bite and Sting acting as a metaphor throughout the series?
MR: Kestrel and Arin play only one game of Bite and Sting in the sequel, The Winner’s Crime, and it is for very high stakes. A friend of mine once said, “Their relationship is kind of twisted. They have such passion and yet can’t be honest with each other unless they enter into this charade of being bound by the outcome of the game to say what they really think and feel.” I love writing scenes where Kestrel and Arin play Bite and Sting because it’s always thrilling to see skilled people compete… but also because the game gives Kestrel and Arin a chance to be honest when they are both very guarded.
As their self-designated couples therapist, I’d tell them they won’t be happy unless they can abandon the game and be real with each other.
Bookish: Kestrel’s often faced with two negative options and attempts to choose the one that results in the least harm. While she may choose the option with the least amount of damage, her choices frequently still result in loss (of lives, of trust, etc). What role does loss play in your series?
MR: I think the kind of loss that you’re describing is linked with responsibility. When Kestrel chooses between two bad options, she feels responsible for the damage she causes. Should she be forgiven? Should she forgive herself? One of the scenes in The Winner’s Crime that I liked to write is when Verex (the emperor’s son) gently encourages Kestrel to forgive herself for making a hard choice.
Arin, too, feels a horribly rooted sense of responsibility for the loss of his family. This is something considered in the trilogy’s third book, The Winner’s Kiss. I suppose that all of the books—but especially the second and third—are trying to consider the relationship between loss, responsibility, and forgiveness.
Bookish: Both your father and your brother served in the military. Did that influence the way you wrote Kestrel’s interactions with her father or her feelings about her people’s military culture?
MR: Yes, in the sense that I was raised in a family that respects the military and is interested in politics and the history of war. Yet none of us is blind to the atrocities of war.
I think Neil Gaiman once said, in connection with his The Graveyard Book, that if you do your job right as a parent, one day your children leave you. Despite Kestrel’s father’s hard and exacting attitude, he loves his daughter deeply. He is also in no way prepared for her to leave him. Some of his pressure on her to join the military is about him: his dedication to the empire, his ideas of honor, his need for his daughter to support what he supports. But a lot of the pressure is due as well to his fear of losing her.
Her resistance to joining the military is a rejection of his values, his politics, and an aspect of their culture that she can’t condone. He knows that. He takes it personally. It is personal.
Bookish: The Herrani are known for their art, music, and love of beauty. Even their gestures (silent hand signals that carry great meaning) have a grace to them. It seems as though art permeates everything they do. Do you see art as a vital means for human connection?
MR: Yes. Probably the worst thing for human connection is feeling jaded—as if we know everything, and we’re tired of what we know. The best art (whether music, visual, film, literature, etc.) evokes a sense of wonder—at what humans can feel, think, and do. It’s good for humans to be aware of the wonder of the human. Art helps.
Marie Rutkoski is the author of The Winner’s Curse, The Shadow Society, and the Kronos Chronicles, which includes The Cabinet of Wonders. She is a professor at Brooklyn College and lives in New York City.