Friday, February 10, 2017

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

by S. Jae-Jones
Read: January 31 - February 6, 2017
Published: February 7, 2017 by Thomas Dunne
Source: Netgalley (Thank you, St. Martin's!)
Category: Mature YA/NA for themes/content, historical Fantasy, Romance, Goblins, 
Series:  Duet, book 1 of 2

Book Description: 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.

NOTE: I do not reveal any specific plot details in this review, but I do talk candidly about my feelings on certain parts, especially the ending, which could be considered a spoiler by inference. Please read on at your own discretion.

I feel very conflicted about this book, and I think partially that may be because this book seems conflicted in what it is.

Wintersong is gorgeous in its rendering, lush in its detail and aching in its emotions. Basically, this story is pretty all the way around: beautifully written and wondrously atmospheric. Elisabeth's home in historical, provencial Bavaria is enchanting. The theme of music is woven through the entire tale in a breathtaking way. Our narrator Elisabeth (sometimes Leisl), is written with care and complexity, as is The Goblin King, though it takes visible effort to get below the surface of him. I especially loved Leisl's brother Josef, and her relationship with him, and though she could be selfish and self-centered, even their sister Käthe grew on me. I can understand the hype for this book, for so many reasons. That said, I also have a lot of questions about this story, and it feels unsettlingly incomplete to me at this point.

At some point in the story, Elisabeth says, "I would appreciate if the Lord were a little less mysterious and a little more straightforward." And I felt that a lot while reading this. I get that these are the very things that make work, a story about a mortal girl and a Goblin King, lord of mischief and lover of all games and tricks. And the mystery was part of the magic, but it also served to obscure the point of this story a little bit for me. Eventually, I just wanted everyone to start speaking plainly and give some answers. I know this is a labyrinth retelling, and perhaps I've missed something in not knowing that tale well. But frankly, I was confused while reading this and I still feel that way.

Part of the trouble for me is that this book seems to be several things at once, and not all of them fit for me. The story is basically split in two halves (you could call them rescue missions). 1) Leisl finds and rescues her sister Käthe from the clutches of the Goblin King, and forfeits herself to the King in her sister's place. 2) Loosely, "Elisabeth finds and rescues herself." This half about Elisabeth awakening to herself. Finding her strength and voice, when she's always been seen - and sees herself - as small, ugly, less than). It's also where the romance comes in, and that's where I became muddled.

As I said, the personal awakening part of this narrative is heavily romance focused, and that's where I start getting confused about the point of this story. If this story is a romance, it doesn't much make sense to me as it stands with this ending (which came abruptly, and which I didn't like). Although this is part of a duet, so its hard to make a judgement about that at this point.

The romance also doesn't make sense to me in a YA book, and I think that confused me a bit too. I know this book was originally sold as an Adult fantasy and then later changed to YA (the author talked about this in her newsletter), and the story has a maturity to it - not just in content, though that is mature - that doesn't match the way it was ultimately sold. I can see why it was changed to YA - the first half especially fits, as does Elisbeth's general road to 'finding herself'. But some things in here seem better suited to staying Adult Fiction, especially the fact that Elisabeth and the King wed and there's a huge theme of surrendering fully to each other - emotionally, mentally and physically. Also the metaphorical ways in which sex was used in the story: to awaken Elisabeth's abilities and also the consequences she faced from it, were very mature. I don't know what was cut from the story to make it YA, besides certain detailed scenes, but if these mature themes were going to be in here, I wanted them to be explored a little more. I think it would have helped with my understanding of the story.

This has more to do with characterization, but I struggled to figure out the Goblin King through most of this and that heavily affected how I saw the romance. The power imbalance between him and Elisabeth appeared so great at first that I was uncomfortable and struggled to read the story as romantic until the last quarter. I just couldn't figure out his perspective at all and it made it hard to trust him. However, I'm glad that we started to get answers about the Goblin King by the end, and I ended up liking him even more than I did Elisabeth.
Still, I have many questions about him and what was happening to Elisabeth in this book, and pretty much everything else going on. I'm very curious about what the sequel will entail.

I feel like I can't come to a full conclusion about this installment until I have a full picture of where it's going. Especially because if this were The End, I would have been deeply disappointed, because what's the point? As a story of self discovery, it makes sense. But the romance is decidedly unfinished and unsatisfying (at least in the way I prefer), the ending is rushed and Elisabeth just seemed selfish to me at the end. Also, no overall, large scale problems have been solved in this book, although many are teased - if obtusely. (For instance, can the Goblin King ever escape his role? Is there another way to reorder the Human and Goblin worlds so that things change from how they are now?) These questions were teased but completely left undone, and I'm hoping the sequel will take up the role in answering them.

Tl;tr: Wintersong is beautifully written, but I felt conflicted about many elements of it, especially the way the romance was presented. I'm very curious about what the sequel will entail, and sort of wished I'd waited  to read this book until I knew more about it.

Love Triangle Factor: None - ultimately it is all Goblin King/Elisbeth, although you have to cut through a lot of clutter to see that (as in his feelings are hard to decipher). I thought the part at the beginning where the Goblin King takes Käthe he would bother me the most, but that did not at all. Elisabeth does fancy a local boy at the beginning, but that is not dragged out, and not an issue at all when she goes to the Underground.
Cliffhanger Scale: The ending tries to make you think the story is over, but this is the first in a duet, and I was unsatisfied by this ending in a way that felt like a cliffy to me. So Low/Medium depending on your perspective.


  1. Gaaahhh, the romance really didn't make a whole lot of sense, did it? I get that this book was a book involving personal and sexual awakening (or something) but I really didn't buy that either. I think the author should have stuck with this book being a fiercely racy adult novel. o_o I guess we'll never know! I am looking forward to reading the next book but honestly, I am not dying over it (or this book) like many are. Just kind of meh, you know?

    Great review, Lauren! Have a fantastic week. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

  2. Gorgeous review Lauren :D Yaaay for enjoying this one. <3 But uuugh, I'm so sorry you had some issues with it :\ I'm worried about reading this one. Yet hoping that I will love it too :)


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