Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones (bought) - 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. From Goodreads.
When I heard that Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones was a retelling of The Labyrinth, I was sold. It's also a kind of reimagining of the Hades and Persephone myth, and is partly inspired by The Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, all things that had me wanting to read it! However, there was very little about this book that I enjoyed.
That's not to say that it's a bad book, necessarily, just that it's not my kind of book. I had a certain idea in my head of what goblins are like, but these goblins are more like cruel, evil fae (and I believe they are, actually, fae - but I can't find anything credible online to back this up). There's a certain feel to faery stories, one that's easily recognisable even if fae aren't mentioned, like with Wintersong, but I fell out of love with fae a number of years ago. They're just not the kinds of stories I enjoy anymore.
But I also had a few problems with this particular story, again, most of which are preference based. There are several parts to the story, but in my mind, there are just two; Liesl tries to save her sister Käthe from the Underground in the first, and the second part covers what happens after. The first part I found to be very predictable. In the second part - the longer part of the novel - nothing much happens. There is the composing of music, there are conversations and arguments, there's sex, but not much else. I spent most of it waiting for something to happen, and it never really does, not until the end.
There is a lot about music - playing instruments, composing, and so forth. Music is a huge part of Liesl's life, of her family's life, and so it's right that it should come up frequently. But there was a lot of musical terminology, and if you don't know music, it's not going to mean anything to you. Of course you could look it up, but I don't think it's really necessary to know them all to catch the drift of what's happening - the composing, the passion, the soul soaring soaring at the beauty and freedom that comes with making music. You don't need to know what everything means to understand Liesl's love for music and the happiness it brings her. I don't share her passion, and although that's not necessary generally to enjoy a story, it mattered that I didn't here. I just had no interest, and would feel myself getting sighing in annoyance whenever music was the focus. Which isn't really fair. This book just wasn't meant for me, I am not the correct audience for this book.
There were also things I found so very annoying. The phrases "tall, elegant stranger" and "the austere young man" were repeated more times than I can count. Liesl kept talking about how plain she was, and had what seemed an obsession with appearance, forever putting herself down. It went beyond having low self-esteem, she was fixated. Although in this case it wasn't the same words that were repeated, it was the same idea that was. Smarter people than me may see think and see the theme of music, and make a link between the repetition of words or certain thoughts and the repetition of musical phrases in songs - I don't know if they would, I'm not really one for analysis, and I don't know enough about music to know if there even is a link - but if they would, that doesn't change the fact that I found it highly annoying.
The sex in the book also made me feel uncomfortable. I have no problem with sex in books, no problem with sex in YA. And nor do I have a problem with writing about rough sex. But I do have a problem with how this book dealt with consent. The Goblin King would always ask, aloud, one way or another if Liesl was happy to continue. Liesl didn't. No matter how many times the Goblin King said "Stop" or "Don't", she still kept trying to get him to have sex with her. It doesn't matter what his reasons for not wanting to have sex were, he didn't want to, and consent goes both ways. He said stop, she should have stopped, but she didn't. He had to physically force her back a number of times, and that's just not ok. It doesn't matter that he was aroused and she knew he wanted her, he said stop. But time and again does she refuse to listen.
There was also the idea of sex breaking Liesl that I really didn't like. Liesl needed to give the Goblin King a part of her, her music, but music she couldn't reach, and the only way she could, she said, was if the Goblin King broke her. Through sex. Then she could find it. What. The. Hell?! What does that even mean? I can get that there's freedom through sex, that unlocking desire can lead to liberation. But this wasn't about breaking free or being liberated, it was about being broken. The Goblin King would break her if he had sex with her. He told her so. She knew it - but she needed to be broken to access something that had nothing to do with sex. I have a problem with the language of it all, firstly. Rough sex that's consensual is fine, and that's what they had, but broken? I can't equate that word with consensual sex (which is sex, really. Sex without consent is rape, sex with is just sex.) - reaching limits and breaking through them, yes, but not breaking a person. I don't think the language was right here, because there was no rape. Lisel technically sexually assaulted the Goblin King a few times, but he didn't sexually assault or rape her, and to break a person with sex? Rape is what that suggests to me. But there's also Liesl needing to be broken to reach a certain part of herself. Yes, she locked a part of herself up tight, and she's finding it difficult to access that part of herself now, but I do not see how or why sex would/did help. Sexual freedom can lead to unlocking desire, sure, but her music? Not even the music itself, but a part of her that composes with abandon, something that doesn't actually have any link to the sex she's having, other than passion, but even then it's different passion. It's never sex and music, music and sex, the two are kept separate in the book, so why one is needed to reach the other just didn't make any sense to me. And again, I just don't like the idea of a person needing to be broken, in any way. She needed to unlock that part of herself, she didn't need to break. Saying all this, though, the sex isn't really a huge part of the novel, and it's never graphically described - though it is made quite clear that it's rough sex.
The best part of this book? The Goblin King. He is such an enigma, There are so many layers to him - he's not just a bad guy. For most of the book, I liked him. I wanted to know more. We do find out more about him, but it's so little. I sympathised with him and his eternal struggle, imprisoned by his role, the loneliness I sensed in him. I think I would have enjoyed this book a hell of a lot more if it was told from his point of view. I think he's the more complex and intriguing out of him and Liesl. He's the one I cared about.
And, I guess, because of that, I shouldn't have been surprised by the ending. But I was. I wasn't expecting it at all, and I think that was because it was from Liesl's point of view, because after everything, it ends like that? I finished it thinking, what was the point? What was the point in any of it happening, if that's where it was going to end up? The point is Liesl; who she was, who she becomes, the self-discovery she makes. But I didn't ever really care about Liesl. I cared about the Goblin King. And yes, those who have read it could argue about what the point was in regards to him, and I would completely get that, but I would say that would have worked better, been a more beautiful, moving, emotional story if it was told from his perspective. That would have been something. But it's not told from his perspective, so it wasn't something, not for me - for me, it felt like a waste of time. Not for me. I can't explain how I mean it without spoiling the story, but I don't mean that I felt like I wasted my time.
Because I did love the Goblin King. He is what I'll remember about this book; his story, what we know of it, and what we don't, and how the story will continue, even though the book has ended. He's the only reason I kept reading.
But as I said, I'm not the right audience for this book. This is mostly all based on my personal taste, and doesn't mean you won't enjoy it yourself. Do read a few other reviews before making a decision on whether or not you'll read it.
ETA: Since writing this review, I read that Liesl has bipolar, and that Wintersong is an #OwnVoices novel. When reading the book, I didn't pick up on Liesl's mental illness, but thinking back, I can now recoginise elements of Liesl's behaviour were signs of her mental illness.
Published: 7th February 2017
Publisher: Titan Books
S. Jae-Jones' Website