Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wintersong - S. Jae-Jones

Title: Wintersong
Author: S. Jae-Jones
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: March 1, 2017
Finished: March 3, 2017

From the inside cover:

All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous, Goblin King. They've enraptured her mind and spirit and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family's inn, Liesl can't help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds - and the mysterious man who rules it - she soon faces an impossible decision. With time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

Dark, romantic, and powerful, Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won't soon forget.

When I first saw this described, I immediately thought, "Labyrinth retelling!" (which was more than enough to make me want this with such fervour); when in reality it's a bit of a mix of Jim Henson's Labyrinth, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, and the Hades and Persephone myth, complete with music and German language references thrown in for good measure....and it made me love it even more (if that's even possible).

Liesl (Elisabeth) is the eldest daughter of an innkeeper family in 18th (possibly 19th) century Germany. Though Liesl has a talent for composing passionate, moving music, she is often overlooked compared to her beautiful sister Kathe and her little brother Josef, who is a musical prodigy. When Liesl was a child, she used to play and share music with the Goblin King (Der Erlkonig) in the Goblin Grove near her home, even promising him that she would marry him one day. When she abandons flights of fancy for responsibility, the Goblin King becomes tired of waiting for her, and kidnaps Kathe as a ruse to bring Elisabeth to the Underground. While in the company of Der Erlkonig, Elisabeth learns more about him and his realm, which leads her to face some difficult decisions regarding her future.

The book is divided into four parts, but they can be summed up in two phases: the world above, and the Underground. The first phase is concerned with establishing Liesl's role within her family and village and how she feels about herself, whereas the second phase deals with Elisabeth in the Underground and how her relationship with Der Erlkonig evolves along with her sense of self-worth.

The writing here is simply gorgeous. There's so much lovely imagery reminiscent of Rossetti's Goblin Market (the English teacher in me was geeking out over this), particularly where Kathe is offered luscious peaches and, though Liesl tries to stop her, she is distracted by an encounter with Der Erlkonig himself, and she discovers Kathe with swollen lips and fruit juice dripping from her mouth. Those types of descriptions are just the start of the sexual imagery in the novel, the sensuality is overflowing here; not to the point of vulgarity or impropriety (the language is appropriate in the context of the story), but it's still fairly mature, so prudish or otherwise sensitive readers be forewarned.

There are some pacing issues, such as when readers are waiting for Liesl to actively decide to stop living in what she clearly knows is the Goblin King's fever dream world where Kathe doesn't exist. It drags on, granted for the purpose of establishing that Liesl is flawed and has thought about what life would be like if her sister wasn't in it. I didn't find the overall pacing horrible, mainly because I love character-driven stories so development in that area doesn't bore me, but readers who are into plot-driven stories might have issues here.

I really enjoyed Liesl/Elisabeth as a character, I could really identify with her struggle of putting on a metaphorical mask to downplay or erase parts of yourself because you're in an environment where you wouldn't be fully accepted or supported otherwise. She's incredibly well-developed and has her share of personality flaws, she's truly a very human character. I'm not a huge fan of the idea that the impetus behind her self-actualization was having sex with the Goblin King, not because I'm a prude, but because this is a YA novel, and I'm not keen on teenage girls thinking that they just need to get laid to "find themselves" (I'm a teacher, some girls actually believe this; heck, some boys too). The author did touch on a key idea regarding relationships that I have to give her credit for including though: that physical intimacy is one thing, but to have a truly fulfilling relationship you need to open up and experience emotional intimacy with your partner as well.

The Goblin King/Der Erlkonig was another incredibly well-developed and complex character. He is described as having an appearance similar to David Bowie's Jareth in Labyrinth, but his demeanour is much more complicated. Elisabeth describes him as presenting almost as different people (the idea of different masks for different situations): he can be cruel and menacing one moment and encouraging and sympathetic the next. I'm enjoying this trend of new-age Gothic romance stories where the heroine experiences her coming-of-age/sexual awakening at the hands of a mysterious/supernatural/imposing figure, but that the being is given a back-story to the point where it's no longer about the heroine having to work against the figure or rejecting him in order to grow, but that she needs to actively work with him to accomplish this. Wintersong is no exception, and it's expressed beautifully here.

Wintersong had me so involved and entrenched in its world, I didn't want to leave. If you're a fan of Cruel BeautyThe Star-Touched Queen, or The Wrath and the Dawn, you need to check this out. I've discovered that there is a sequel in the works (yay!), so I'll be waiting ever so impatiently for it.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is the only aspect of the novel I find rather unimpressive. The internet thinks this cover is freaking stupendous and astounding though, so it might just be me.

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