Tournament of Losers by Megan Derr
A once honorable event has become the domain of the desperate, the pathetic, and the foolish. And Rath is painfully aware he's all three...
All Rath wants is a quiet, peaceful life. Unfortunately, his father brings him too much trouble--and too many debts to pay--for that to ever be possible. When the local crime lord drags Rath out of bed and tells him he has three days to pay his father's latest debt, Rath doesn't know what to do. There's no way he can come up with so much money in so little time.
Then a friend poses an idea just ridiculous enough to work: enter the Tournament of Losers, where every seventy-five years, peasants compete for the chance to marry into the noble and royal houses. All competitors are given a stipend to live on for the duration of the tournament--funds enough to cover his father's debt.
All he has to do is win the first few rounds, collect his stipend, and then it's back to trying to live a quiet life...
What an utter delight! Megan Derr has made it onto my favorite authors list with this book. The world building was amazing--so clear and understandable without a single info dump--just details seamlessly woven into dialogue and descriptions that brought everything to life. Rath is an amazing character; he has not had an easy life of it, at times living on the streets with his mother and doing what it takes to survive. He has worked on the docks, pick-pocketed, and worked both in a brother and on the streets. Life would be easier if he didn't always have to pay, often literally, for his father's mistakes.
When his father's latest problem threatens to land Rath in a world of pain, he enters the Tournament of Losers in order to raise the money needed to repay Friar, the local crime boss. Rath plans to get through a couple of rounds and then "lose" in order to return to his normal life. However, when it comes down to it, he can't do anything less than his best...something stubborn in him won't just let him wimp out and surprisingly he finds himself one of ten people out of thousands of hopefuls competing to win the hand of the prince. Considering that Rath has recently taken to hanging out with a High City noble, he has mixed feelings about doing well in the tournament. As much as he knows he doesn't have a future with Tress, he can't help but hurt at the thought that Tress as a noble is open to marrying someone who wins the tournament...someone not Rath.
To complicate matters, one of the other competitors is angry at Rath's success and hires thugs to try to take him out. Add that to everyone hoping he does well and his increasing doubts about even staying in the tournament and Rath just wishes he could go back to his quiet, mostly peaceful life. And yet, quitting just doesn't seem like the thing to do. Why should he reward the person hiding behind violence? Why should he worry about Tress when Tress seems fine to let him go? And will Rath really be happy if he wins the tournament? If he doesn't?
Oh the feelings in this book--parts of it were painful, both physically and emotionally while others were by turns tender, funny, infuriating, sweet, and more. I was rooting for Tress and Rath to make it work although it became increasingly difficult to see how it could end well for them...I was also rooting for Rath to finally come out on top whether that meant him winning the tournament or not, I just wanted him to be happy because nobody deserved it more than him. He never pitied himself for having to deal with hardships; instead he got on with living his life, being a good friend, a better son, and a stranger willing to help those in need even if he had never met them before.
Tress was more difficult to get to know but he was effervescent, fun-loving, and extremely tender and kind to Rath. I loved him for how he loved Rath...even if Rath didn't recognize Tress's feelings for what they were, it was clear that his feelings ran deeper than just some passing fancy for a Low City laborer. The course of his relationship with Rath did not always run smoothly but it was often Tress who would extend the olive branch and begin the process of making up and moving forward. I had my fingers crossed that somehow, some way he and Rath would be able to be together...
If you are looking for a book with great world building that feels both familiar and exotic all at once, realistic characters you can root for (and one or two you can love to hate), and a story line that keeps you guessing, try Tournament of Losers by Megan Derr. You won't regret it!!