Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones
Publication: February 7th 2017 by Titan Books
Format: Paperback Pages: 508
Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.
All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.
But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says.
Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.
Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world. – Goodreads.
It’s taken me awhile to gather my thoughts about this novel. When I started reading Wintersong, I immediately felt it was a solid 4 stars because the writing was beautiful. I was hooked to the plot and I was particularly excited about the references and similarities to Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, one of my favourite poems. Wintersong doesn’t only bare similarities to Rossetti’s poem, it’s actually a retelling of Labyrinth. I haven’t watched the film, so I can’t comment on how the two compare.
Wintersong is a fantasy novel, the first few instances where goblins crept into the narrative were a little weird. It felt dream-like but I think that was the point because the narrative is written from the first-person perspective of the protagonist, Liesl. The idea is that Liesl feels like she’s dreaming, she feels like she’s almost in a trance-like state when she encounters the goblins. She questions whether what she saw was real or not. Wintersong itself was dream-like, Jae-Jones’ poetic style emphasised this, and the references and importance given to music in this novel make it come across as a musical piece in itself.
I loved the way the goblins and the Underground were incorporated into the story, they were fascinating to read about. There are echoes of Persephone and Hades in the story as it progresses and I thought the Goblin King bore a lot of similarities to Morozko.
Eighteen-year-old Liesl wasn’t a likeable character in my opinion. Which is fine, some of my favourite stories have had unlikeable main characters. At the start of the novel, we’re introduced to this almost motherly older sister who has sacrificed everything, including her identity, because of her position as the eldest and also because of her more talented and better-looking siblings. Liesl has a wild talent for music that is overlooked and silenced by her father who prefers the more controlled perfection his son’s musical abilities offer. She’s rather plain-looking in comparison to her typically beautiful sister Kathe, who glows like the sun and is betrothed to a man Liesl had been close to. Liesl is a character who, after a lifetime of disappointment and neglect, has decidedly accepted her fate as nothing and seems to only be able to identify herself as someone’s sister or daughter.
Liesl is often painted as being selfless in the novel but I thought she was quite selfish a lot of the time. In fact, when Liesl’s true nature is exposed, I found it quite refreshing to read about the real her. Both Liesl and the Goblin King are multi-faceted characters, their lives, minds and behaviours are complex, which is what makes them interesting to follow. By the end of the novel, we discover even the secondary characters aren’t as straightforward as they appeared initially.
A large part of Wintersong is about Liesl being forced to come to terms with the person she is, for her to accept her true self and to actually have her own identity. All of this is done spectacularly and Jae-Jones’ lyrical writing is the cherry on top, making this book a page-turning delight.
It was the last part of Wintersong that made me drop the rating from 4 to 5 stars to 3. Now I’m going to try to explain without giving too much away about the story itself. Two characters in the story get married, following the marriage, there are a few scenes where the husband does not want to engage in certain relations with his wife but she gets pushy, she gets bratty and angry. She gets argumentative with him and then (mega eye roll moment), she thinks he’s behaving like that because she’s ugly. This leads to her continuing to be an asshat, the whole time the wife treats the husband like he was in the wrong and even he feels guilty. I found it disturbing that this behaviour wasn’t challenged. I was so angry during these scenes, it made me want to stop reading and DNF the book, but I wanted to see if maybe, just maybe, the behaviour would be addressed by the end. That didn’t happen, which is why I’ve dropped the rating to 3 and wouldn’t be eager to recommend Wintersong. A bloody shame.