Fantasy and History Collide: Marie Rutkoski on The Winner's Curse

Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Curse has quickly gained a loyal following thanks to her rich writing and fantastical setting. With such a detailed world full of military forces, social classes and forbidden romance, our curious minds were hungry for more insight into this intriguing society and culture Marie has created. So we went straight to the source and here's what she had to say:

I’ve been contacted by several readers who wonder what, exactly, The Winner’s Curse is. “It’s listed as fantasy,” they say, “but where’s the magic?” True, there is none. No spells, no dragons, no shape-shifters. As a reader, I love that stuff. And inititally, in the early days of this book project, I sat down to write The Winner’s Curse firmly in that genre. I had the idea that the warmongering empire, Valoria, had some kind of magical military edge over the people it had conquered, the Herrani. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wanted to tell a human story. I wanted the characters to feel as close to human as possible, and for their choices to be within the realm of what my readers would be able to choose. With only a few chapters written, I ruthlessly cut out any hint of magic.

But then, I worried, what was my genre? Romance? Yes. But what kind? Historical? Well…this is a book with horses and carriages, oil lamps and letters with wax seals, day dresses and ball gowns. The world, however, is entirely fictional. So it is not our history. After some deliberation, I decided I was writing a fantasy, because it was set in an imagined world. The Winner’s Curse is a fantasy with no fantasy in it.

I haven’t been asked by RT to write about genre for this post. Rather, I am to give a glimpse of what inspired the cultures I created in this book — the Valorians (militarily gifted and obsessed, atheistic, honor-bound, and not fussy about sexual mores — as long as class lines aren’t crossed, or are done so discreetly in secret) and the Herrani (a conquered people once known for their philosophy, art and music, as well as for their sense of cultural superiority). However, I raise this question of genre in part because it interests me (do tell me what you think in the comments!), and in part because my decision to invent a new world played a large role in how I conceived of the Valorians and Herrani.

I had no need to be loyal to history. This was incredibly freeing. Yes, The Winner’s Curse is inspired by the dynamic between the Romans and Greeks during the height of the Roman empire, when it had conquered Greece and enslaved its people, but I felt no need to dress my characters in togas. I love elaborate clothes. Let’s not kid ourselves; a main draw of Downtown Abbey is all those pretty dresses, the musical clicking of those long, beaded necklaces Lady Mary plays with. I’m always happy when a heroine in a Regency romance goes to the modiste and gets fitted for some stunning number. Fashion is delicious. My characters have long gloves, hats are a new trend, the Valorian men wear embroidered shirts and keep their hair long and a dress is a carefully constructed weapon deployed in high society.

In the Valorian empire, people must either join the military or marry by the age of 20. The logic? Either be a soldier or make babies who will become soldiers. Kestrel, my main character, has a mind for military strategy but is reluctant to use it (she doesn’t want to kill, or order other people to kill). She’s not too keen on marriage either, because she values her independence. And she values above all her music, which would be impossible if she joined an army (you can’t exactly carry a piano onto a battlefield), and would face a serious threat in a marriage (music is associated with the conquered Herrani culture. It’s something slaves do, and most husbands wouldn’t like Kestrel doing it). Kestrel’s world — at least, at first — is that of the leisure class, of people whose business it is to make personal alliances, practice politics and seek advantageous marriages.

Although I wouldn’t call it my favorite Shakespeare play (it’s wholly disturbing and deeply tragic), I’ve long been fascinated by Titus Andronicus, particularly for how it depicts the cycles of revenge. I really like Julie Taymor’s film version of it, and as I developed a story that was in many ways about vengeance and culture clashes, I had an image in my mind of Jessica Lange (Taymor’s Tamora) slinking around in gold dresses and furs, her hair braided with gold. Tamora is a Goth, a militaristic barbarian and the gold worked perfectly for me, recalling earlier periods of history where gold was associated with war — adorning armor, representing a prize, impressing an opponent. I loved how feral and fearsome gold looked on Lange. So gold quickly colored how I imagined the Valorians — their hair, skin tones, what they would wear. And again, because I’m a professor of the Renaissance, I dipped into another influence from the period: Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, and the way that character conquers territory after territory. His reputation has grown so fearsome that when his army camps outside a city’s gates and prepares to attack, he’ll fly a white flag, to let the city know they can surrender and all will be spared. The second day, a red flag dies, and if they surrender then, some people will survive. But on the third, if they haven’t given in yet, Tamburlaine will attack, and put everyone — man, woman, and child — to the sword. And so the color of the Valorian military become black, for that last and deadliest day.

And what of the Herrani? In some ways, I thought a lot about the contrast of values within my own American culture. The way the arts are often looked at as useless — or at least, not terribly important. Does our culture value beauty? (I don’t mean personal beauty). Look at the architecture, the design of cities, how nature is incorporated or not into our lives. When our children go to college, do we want them to major in art history or English … or does engineering sound a bit more practical? My family has a military background; both my father and brother served. Is there a place for classical music in the midst of artillery? Isn’t it increasingly harder to find governmental funding for the arts? I’m raising some difficult questions, and I suppose I am conveying that I worry that beauty is under fire these days. And I see both sides of the story (yeah, the arts are great, but we should pay our military well). When I constructed the Herrani culture, I did want to show how their fascination with beauty and their supposed superiority led to their downfall. But I also wanted to convey that there is a real loss when we neglect beauty, and divorce ourselves from music, literature and visual art. This is something that Kestrel understands.

-Marie Rutkoski

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