Review: The Winner’s Curse

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By Dee Walker. Grade: B+

Orphan Harsh makes it to the billionaire club with a burning vision, sheer intellect and the blessings of his political Godfather. The favours must now be paid back, through a huge Guru Dakshina. To honour his Master’s wish, Harsh, with the help of his fellow IITians, sets out to create a never-seen-before governance technology that will change the face of democratic India.

Everything is at stake: money, reputations, egos and morals. Even lives.

Will they succumb to insatiable greed in the murky games of politics, backstabbing and subterfuge, or will they be redeemed by the “Ten Commandments” that once forged their ideals at college?

If you thought that supreme technology and unalloyed power can bring lasting public good, or that e-governance and transparency can address the ills of our system, The Winner’s Curse will force you to think again. For, ultimately, what’s at stake is: YOU.

This is a story of ambition, plain and simple. IITians or otherwise, The Winner’s Curse is all about the ambitions of individuals in positions of power, and the clash of those ambitions. Harsh Mittal, the orphan whose ambition was to take over the world and make it to among the who’s who of the business world. The political virtuoso known only as The Master, whose ambition was to create a power centre and then rule the country, so to speak. Then there are others who have ambitions of rising or of not falling; all this intertwined in the backdrop of Ten IITian Commandments.

This might sound very bourgeois, but the book is good. The characters sketched are few, but are thoroughly impactful; each character has a story to tell and has a life of its own – the ambition, the eccentricities, the fight, the rise and/or fall – all these go a long way towards making an impression on the reader. The best thing about the characterization is that all characters possess different shades of grey; not one of them is in the white or the black. This is something which requires a lot of maturity, both of thought and writing.

There are some clever puns involved as far as nomenclature is concerned – Google becomes Doodle – and many other names of the characters. On more than one occasions, the situations have been portrayed in a manner which is indirect enough for the reader to make an automatic connection to its real life counterpart; something which is a strong thumbs up for the author. The prose is proper, but has a mix of colloquialism as and when required. The plot is both pacey and racy, hitting all the right notes as far as a commercial thriller is concerned.

There is one major problem with The Winner’s Curse – it peaks out early. [Partial spoilers ahead]

The novel reached crescendo at around 75% of the novel’s length. For all intents and purposes, page 208 was where the novel got deadly interesting (total length was 281 pages, which means the peak was around 75%). Although there are 70-odd pages left in the novel after that, it was all downhill after that, right upto the ending. If only the ending wouldn’t have betrayed the plot, it had all the makings of a blockbuster. [Partial spoilers end]

Be that as it may, there are other interesting things such as the Ten IITian Commandments. A couple of commandments have been ascribed to each character, something which the character lives by and which signifies the relevance of that character in the bigger scheme of things. Then there is an underlying IITian camaraderie which exists among the characters, perhaps courtesy of the author’s reminiscences.

“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”

This quote by John Steinbeck right at the beginning of the blurb best summarizes the novel and what drives the characters in it. A great plot, well-sketched characters, strong yet sparse elements of dark humour, barely average ending – overall a great attempt at a commercial thriller and a long way to go for the author. Political fiction is not an easy genre to tackle and special kudos to the author for venturing into this underappreciated one.

A person who likes to have his hands full with opportunities. For him, books have been the one constant factor in his life ever since he has made any sense of life. To him, books are the most powerful source of knowledge and information and it is our turn to repay them in whatever way we can. He believes that books are the gateway to another world – a world without limits and boundaries, a world of free will and endless possibilities and are a really good way to activate one’s mind. His favourite genres are fiction and alternative history.

A Management graduate from Symbiosis Centre for Management Studies, Pune, he is currently pursuing his Master’s from Indian Institute of Management, Raipur.