Sunday, January 21

Book Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Wintersong: A Novel by S. Jae-Jones, St. Martin's Griffin 2017

One of my goals for 2018 is to get back into a regular reading habit, and one of the ways I hope to do that is by keeping up with recommendations from you guys and from the other members of the Creating and Co. Book Club. The December club choice was author S. Jae-Jones' debut Wintersong. From reading the synopsis, I wasn't sure it was something I'd be into - goblins? - but I got an e-mail invitation from Netgalley and decided to take it as a sign. After reading the first chapter, I got sucked into the novel's dark magical world, and would recommend it - with some reservations.
Wintersong's main character, Liesl, lives in Bulgaria with her family. There's her alcoholic father, who was a famous violinist in Salzburg. Her hardworking mother, who runs the family's inn while Liesl looks after her siblings. In fact, she's so selfless that she is happy when her beautiful sister Käthe becomes engaged to the boy she liked, and when her musically gifted brother gets an opportunity that may take him far from home. Liesl shares the family gift for music, her talent lying in composing rather than performance, but will never be able to achieve fame for it because she is a girl. There's also her superstitious grandmother, who warns the children about the Goblin King, Der Erlkönig, and though Liesl is too old for such nonsense she has fond, vague memories of a childhood spent playing with a strange little boy in the wooded area she and her siblings called the "Goblin Grove." 

Though Wintersong is a fantasy, references to real musicians like Mozart place the storyline in the 1790s or early 1800s. With this setting, it was easy to forget that Jae-Jones based the novel on the 1980's Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, but both stories share a common initiating event: a sibling stolen by the Goblin King. When Käthe goes mising, Liesl must travel into the underworld to free her from the beautiful, frightening ruler - and in doing so, finds her own power. Jae-Jones is a self-professed English literature nerd, and there are shades of Jane Eyre in Wintersong - along with moments that reminded me of Beauty and the Beast and the story of Hades and Persephone. Her prose style perfectly suits the dark fairytale flavor of the novel, though she does have a few overused words and phrases - I got tired of the King being called "austere," Liesl's "décolletage," and the underworld's many "objets d'art." I did love that Wintersong's Der Erlkönig has different-colored eyes, a subtle shoutout to David Bowie and Labyrinth's King Jareth.

Remember this guy?

School Library Journal recommends Wintersong for grades 9 and up, and it's marketed as YA, but I would not feel comfortable putting it in a ninth grade classroom library due to several romance scenes that, while not as graphic as an adult romance novel, leave little to the imagination. I also feel that narratives about relationships like Liesl's with the Goblin King - in which the lonely girl "fixes" a cruel, controlling man with her love - can be downright dangerous to some young women readers. For me, this book belongs in the New Adult section, and maybe that makes me an old prude. That said, this old prude will be seeking out the sequel, Shadowsong, to find out what happens next for Liesl and Der Erlkönig.

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