In The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski, readers are introduced to a world wherein the nation of Herrani had not very long ago been conquered and then enslaved by the Valorian army. Kestrel, our seventeen year old main character, is the daughter of a Valorian army general, and is on the cusp of having to make a huge life choice because at the tender age of twenty, Valorian citizens are forced to either enlist in the military – or get married.
Kestrel, of course, wants nothing to do with either of these options, preferring to devote her life to the piano rather than follow in her father’s footsteps or raise a litter of children. Music, however, was highly esteemed in Herrani society, and while it is acceptable for Valorians to enjoy, it is not permitted for a Valorian to play an instrument, sing, or otherwise make music in any way or form.
When the book began – and, honestly, based off of its summary – it reminded me of a strange combination between Wuthering Heights and Footloose, a correlation which was only strengthened by one of the characters, Arin Smith, and his resemblance to a younger, more verbose Heathcliff. But I digress – the book picks up remarkably once it delves into Smith’s revolutionary plans, and, even better, Kestrel grows a spine (apparently political intrigue suits her).
The Winner’s Curse also falls within the romance genre, and there is of course an obligatory love-triangle, which was for once not that obnoxious – all three characters are pretty well-developed, amusing, and well-written. On top of this, the world building was excellently handled; there was no info-dump, everything (society, rules, the culture, etc.) made sense and was explained naturally through the course of the book, and the political plot is, in a word, amazing. There were portions in the story where the plot was transparent, but it is an overall enjoyable journey that even featured awesome background characters.
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki is, first and foremost, a piece of breathtaking artwork. I mean, the art for this graphic novel is seriously A+, 10/10 would recommend. This One Summer is about a young girl named Rose Abigail Wallace. Rose has gone on a family vacation to the same each in the same town and played with the same friend (Windy) since she was five, but this summer – THIS summer – it’s different. This summer Rose’s parents are fighting.
There are other kids at the beach, locals and vacationers like Rose and Windy, and everybody seems to know everybody in a small-town kind of way – which would be great, but apparently Rose’s parents’ fight has also caused Rose to feel the need to act out in cruel little vindictive ways girls do – especially when aimed at other girls.
This One Summer is, at its heart, a coming of age story. The story is tied with a meditation on divorce and its possible effects on the children caught between feuding parents, but it is mostly about that period in life where a child teeters on the edge between youth and their teenaged years – and you can literally feel the teetering here, it’s excellent. On one side, Rose is very ambivalent towards growing up; all Rose really wants to do is relax at the beach with friends she’s had for years. On the other hand, however, this summer Rose is obsessed with the lives of the older teens at the beach, and is also experimenting with the words they use (sluts! boobs!) and the things they try (bullying! sex! cigarettes!).
The characters in This One Summer are achingly familiar to anyone who has grown up. The artwork is beautiful and the characters are lovely and bittersweet in their awkward transition towards adulthood. The story was very real and did not pull punches with either content or language.
The Verdict: This was a challenging round to judge for me. Not only is judging between two mediums is always going to be difficult, but I equally adore graphic novels and the Fantasy genre, so attempting to choose between the two was a strain. As much as I love myself some High Fantasy and world building, The Winner’s Curse was at heart a Romance and did not have a strong enough female protagonist for my tastes, never mind the whole casually treated background issue of war and enslavement of the conquered society. This One Summer, however vivid and beautiful, was just so horribly negative – though essentially a bildungsroman, the entire story was filled with girls hating on other girls (spoiler: there’s slut-shaming).
I honestly thought I was going to like This One Summer best, but it turns out the winner is…
Winner: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski