Slavery in Young Adult and Fantasy Literature: “The Winner’s Curse” by Marie Rutkoski

By: Daniel Brount

Recreating the trauma of slavery is challenging enough when writing about historical events, but it’s even more difficult with fantasy fiction. Marie Rutkoski takes on this challenge with her young adult fantasy novel The Winner’s Curse (2014). Though her work does not depict slavery perfectly, the fictional world’s slave system is successful enough to draw readers’ attention to the controversial issue. With more texts like this, the literary world can drive readers to care more about the slavery epidemic that still exists today.

Rutkoski writes in third person but specifically delves into the minds of Kestrel, a general’s daughter, and the slave she buys at an auction. Though she purchases the slave, Arin, she is not particularly supportive of the institution of slavery. Her nation is an expanding one that enslaves the people of the places it invades. Arin is a Herrani, one of the races most recently enslaved by the Valorians. From Kestrel’s end, her perspective includes her considerations about the validity of slavery – she often expresses her guilt for purchasing Arin, and she points out how some people feel uncomfortable purchasing people even when the slaves already aid them with every task of their day. From Arin’s end, he discusses how he feels animalized, and his disdain toward his place in Valorian society leads him to work toward a slave rebellion.

Rather than exclusively exploring one perspective of slavery, Rutkoski takes the time to include two. This enhances the value and validity of this fictitious portrayal of slavery, but it also emphasizes how challenging it is to get it right.

Initially, the text displays numerous descriptions of slavery as Rutkoski divulges the details of the society. During the first chapter from Arin’s point of view, he is simply referred to as “the slave.” Nothing else. This, along with the fact that he is renamed “Smith” to represent his blacksmithing skill, provides a powerful example of the loss of identity that slaves experience. Especially for someone like Arin, who was not born a slave, this conflict over his identity is very evident. After being referred to as an animal, he tries to process the words: “Somehow, ‘animal’ had become possible. Somehow, the word named him. This was a discovery ten years old and yet remade every day. It should have been dulled by repetition. Instead, he was sore from its constant cut of surprise. He was sour with swallowed anger” (33). Because he used to be a free man, he refuses to cope with his new identity as a slave.

His identity struggles expand, with his resistance blowing up into participation in a slave rebellion later. With this uprising, the text opens up questions about the morality of rebellion and what actions are acceptable for those seeking justice. To regain their position of freedom, the Herrani people cross many moral lines, such as poisoning innocent people and enslaving those who enslaved them. Instead of glossing over these complicated actions, Rutkoski highlights it from each side of the conflict, primarily focusing on the relationship between Kestrel and Arin.

Along with this rebellion, the focus on war in the text provides a context for understanding slavery that results from conquest and expansion. In the author’s note, Rutkoski explains her attempt to connect the society she creates to that of the Greco-Roman period and how Rome enslaved Greece’s population after engulfing the nation. Rather than the more common focus on the U.S. Civil War era and slave texts grounded primarily on issues of sexual abuse, this book explores another type of slavery, helping to better expand the range and variety of books on slavery.

Rutkoski further enhances this range of slavery topics with the discussion of society’s ostracism toward those it perceives as participating in master-slave sexual relations, slave auctions, and activities the culture has associated with slaves. For example, Kestrel is a musician, but music is considered below her because her society is so military-focused. Her people do not see the arts as important, and therefore they belong to the lowest class.

Rutkoski adds more depth to his depiction of the slavery system when one slave gains freedom. As a child, Kestrel asks her father to free her nurse Enai on her birthday, but when her nurse does not react positively to the news, Kestrel realizes that her nurse could never really gain her independence: “Kestrel saw, then, what Enai did: the difficulties of an old Herrani woman alone—however free—in her occupied country. Where would she sleep? How would she earn enough to eat, and who would employ her when Herrani couldn’t employ anyone and Valorians had slaves?” (49-50).

Because of the wide range of points the novel explores in the discussion of slavery, it can be called a success. But, it still fails where most slavery literature fails: the creation of substantial empathy and recognition of trauma.

Empathizing with Kestrel comes easily, but with Arin and the other slaves, the connection is minimal. On one level, this is because of the lack of an in-depth exploration of the lives of less well-kept slaves. Arin has it much better than other slaves, and Rutkoski fails to explore the harsher lives of slaves in her text. There are glimpses, but nothing deep enough to impact the reader.

Yet, I am not disappointed. Recreating the trauma of slavery is simply not possible. While Rutkoski could have developed the darker side of slavery more, she succeeds in creating a believable slavery system in a fictional world. In young adult fantasy literature, all I can ask for is more risk. To expose the general population to slavery, we need more of these texts. Those who don’t know or don’t care about slavery won’t be looking at texts that are solely considered slave narratives. But they will explore fantasy novels and young adult literature. Maybe this glimpse into the fictional slave system of The Winner’s Curse can engender a new curiosity in understanding the traumas of modern slavery.

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Works Cited

Rutkoski, Marie. The Winner’s Curse. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux for Young Readers, 2014. Print.

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