The Winner’s Curse

Dear Jeannie,

Okay so I’m going to cut you some slack since it’s midterm week for you but bruh, post already.

Now that the obligatory chiding is out of the way, instead of getting ahead on/doing problem sets and whatnot this week, I read a bunch of YA novels (the others of which I’ll be reviewing in the upcoming weeks). The one I finished most recently is The Winner’s Curse (which I will be abbreviating with TWC because I’m not about typing the same thing over and over) by Marie Rutkoski. (First of all, it’s still so strange that when I read YA now, all these characters are younger than me?? Like smol child, please stop doing these things before you get actual PTSD.)

TWC is mainly about star-crossed lover pair Kestrel and Arin, (Arin starts out as Kestrel’s slave before we find out they are on opposite sides of the political situation–Romeo and Juliet on steroids?). Kestrel, a Valorian, is part of the currently ruling faction, in fact her father is the general of Valoria’s military, while Arin hails from the conquered people, whose houses and land Valoria has seized.

I will say that to its credit, TWC actually reads like a plausible historical fiction novel, if you know, you made Valoria (I hate these stupid made up fantasy names) France during Napoleon’s reign or Genghis Khan’s empire. And there was a surprisingly low level of emotional constipation from the leads once they figured out their own feelings (obviously pre-confession there were still tense moments). But for sure the highlight is Kestrel’s intelligence & deviousness. Unlike many YA novels where the heroine is “like super smart while still kicking sooo much a$$” Kestrel actually has a believable talent for strategizing and scheming. It almost reminds me a lil of good ol’ Artemis Fowl.

While not mind-blowingly awesome, it was a fun read. Would recommend.

Love,

Crystal

Crooked Kingdom

Dear Jeannie,

I hope you have gotten your sheets together but if you haven’t know that it will get better. (Which sounds so cliche and trite and bleh but is true! There’s always an adjustment period when you go to a new school even if you’ve been there before.)

This week I read Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, which is the second book in the “Six of Crows” duology. It would definitely make more sense to have reviewed Six of Crows first but like American politics, I too don’t believe in sense-making.

The series follows a gang of what seems to be late teenagers, in a fictional world where superpowered humans known as “grisha” exist. The gang is led by criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker (think of a much, much more violent and sociopathic Artemis Fowl), and his close cohorts, Inej who’s a spy/acrobat/Kaz’s love-interest (I say “love-interest” lightly because Kaz is so emotionally stunted), Jesper, who’s a young, sarcastic version of Deadshot, Wylan, a rich boy turned chemistry/demolitions genius, the grisha of the team, Nina, and Matthias (who is the muscle? Nina’s on again off again bf?). Essentially the two books can be boiled down to: they get into some bad situations and then have to scheme their way out. The series is almost gratuitously gritty. Every character’s backstory is steeped in trauma.  And most if not all seem to have symptoms of PTSD.

Some themes: drug addiction, life after prostitution, murder, corruption, very effed up parent child dynamics (a dad tries repeatedly to murder his kid), torture, abuse etc.

If the themes above sound like they could be a list of key words from another terrible Batman reboot, that’s because they probably could.

At this point, it’s hard to tell if Bardugo is aiming for shock value, or if she thinks the story couldn’t be told without every single bit of grit. I do have to say that while the issues are very much real issues irl, Bardugo’s world building is strong enough that the reader sees these problems as if through a thickly tinted lens. In a sense, she casts fantasy as a buffer for the reader’s trauma. Bardugo is also a rather talented writer, with a gift for character-craft and witty dialogue. Below I’ve included some quotes I found either characteristic of Bardugo’s style or just interesting tidbits in general.

“He’ll be charged with violating a contract and attempting to interfere with the market… There is no greater crime according to Kerch law. The sentences are the same as for murder. He could hang.”

And it’s not just real world trauma that she tries to recreate in her fantasy world, Bardugo also tries to recreate a lot of real world systems. She exposes capitalism by creating something that is so hyperbolic it’s like looking into a funhouse mirror and learning something new.

No mourners, no funerals. Another way of saying good luck. But it was something more. A dark wink to the fact that there would be no expensive burials for people like them, no marble markers to remember their names, no wreaths of myrtle and rose.

And:

Inej almost felt sorry for her. Dunyasha really believed she was the Lantsov heir, and maybe she was. But wasn’t that what every girl dreamed? That she’d wake and find herself a princess? Or blessed with magical powers and a grand destiny? Maybe there were people who lived those lives. Maybe this girl was one of them. But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.

So anyway, as terrible as school is, at least your parent/half the city isn’t trying to kill you (an active problem for Kaz’s entire gang).

Love,

Crystal