Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones
Publication Date: February 7th, 2017
Publisher: Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan
Beware the Goblin men and the wares they sell.
Liesl has long abandoned her childhood imaginations of the Goblin King and his kingdom underground, but it seems that the Lord of Mischief has not forgotten her. When Liesl’s sister, Käthe, is taken to his kingdom far beneath the earth, Liesl must journey below to rescue her. But the Goblin King is not going to make it easy for her; Käthe‘s freedom comes with a steep price. Liesl’s hand in marriage to the Goblin King is only the beginning of the price she must pay. For they soon discover that marriage was only the beginning…
Liesl can be a frustrating character to follow; she’s somehow ended up shouldering the burden of keeping her family stable, and making sure that their world keeps spinning. As a child, she coped by dreaming of a life with the Goblin King; dreaming that he wanted to marry her, but she always refused his offer. Yet as Liesl grows with age, life hammers these deeper desires and dreams out of her, and forces her to accept her reality above ground. Her father is a washed up musician has-been who spends most of his time drinking and chasing a quick penny. Her mother is a beauty whose charms have faded with the tough life she’s been given. Liesl’s sister, Käthe, seems oblivious to anything outside of her mirror; she’s obsessed with her beauty and goes to great lengths to maintain it. The only family that Liesl seems truly connected to is her brother, Josef, because they both are incredibly gifted musicians. Sadly, Liesl’s gender precludes her from the ability to pursue a career of her own, so she invests herself in Josef’s success. Altogether, Liesl is a very frustrated character; she’s deeply unhappy and seems agitated at the pace and direction of her life. Can you blame her? Not entirely. We also get a very clear sense that Liesl self-image has been damaged over the years; she views herself as ugly and therefore worthless (a fact the author continually reminds the reader of…). None of Liesl’s family jumped off the page to me, except her almost-senile grandmother, Constanze. It’s clear that while Constanze is somehow teetering between two realities, she’s had Liesl’s answers all along. I found her to be one of the most interesting characters, and would have liked to know more about her.
While I enjoyed the dark, mysterious tone of Wintersong, I struggled to orient myself around the plot due to pacing. Our story is either progressing really quickly, or we’re stuck in Liesl’s mind and things slow way down. Once Liesl reaches the underground, the author intentionally makes it disorienting. I did get that, but it ended up affecting further character development and I didn’t get the sense of who the Goblin King really was. We get hints of his own tortured past, but I wanted more from his relationship with Liesl. If the premise of your novel is that your female protagonist has to sacrifice everything to marry another character, you have to make it intense and worth reading about; everything felt very surface level. I also struggled with the world-building, which is probably the main reason why I read fantasy. I couldn’t imagine the Underground as anything more than dirt; dirt walls and floors, brown everywhere. I couldn’t grasp any significant detail that could push this over the edge to from mediocre to great, for me. I was expecting a winter wonderland, underground caverns (read J. R. R. Tolkien if you want tips on how to make an underground realm come alive, for goodness sake!), and glorious music. Unfortunately, for me, this debut just felt dull.