Published by Thomas Dunne on February 7th 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, Retelling
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.
Wintersong is like a dark, haunting, yet sweet melody, inspired by Goethe’s German ballad Der Erlkönig. Though the characterisation entails common tropes and the romance is problematic for me, this debut excites with flawed and wicked characters, a gloomy atmosphere, and magnificent writing.
She turned around. My sister’s lips glistened — red, sticky, and sweet — her pout swollen as though she had just been thoroughly kissed.
In her hands was a half-eaten peach, its flesh dripping down her fingers like rivulets of blood.
One of my issues with this novel lies with the main character. Liesl’s storyline is that typical transformation from the ugly duckling to the special snowflake. The first half of the book is filled with a shitload of self-pity, where she constantly reminds the reader that she is plain and skinny compared to her curvaceous sister Käthe. The second half focused on Liesl’s new-found self-worth, i.e. the recognition of her musical talent. I don’t know which version of Liesl annoyed me more. This does not mean, however, that her spark was lost on me entirely. She is flawed, selfish, and twisted in a dark way. Similar to Cruel Beauty‘s Nyx, Liesl has a wicked side to her, and the sibling dynamics are influenced by a tug-of-war between affection and envy.
Since I’ve already mentioned Cruel Beauty, I might as well draw another comparison, because Liesl reminded me as much of Nyx as the Goblin King reminded me of Ignifex. Like Ignifex, the Goblin King never reveals his true name, and so I am doomed to spelling out “The Goblin King” for the remainder of this review. The Goblin King appears as a mysterious, handsome stranger first, and I already felt a massive eyeroll coming on. When his face is revealed, however, he’s not described as blindingly beautiful. Although Liesl is instantly attracted to the Goblin King, he is described as both beautiful and ugly, not omitting the “otherness” of his features. His characterisation is torn between two personalities: The remnants of a human soul and a goblin ruler who has lost every ounce of human emotion. The Goblin King is a sly creature, malicious to a certain extent, which I enjoyed a great deal. Though he was great as a male lead, I did not like him as a love interest, a point I will elaborate when I tear into the romantic subplot in this review.
“You think too much, Elisabeth,” he said. “Too much about propriety, too much about duty, too much about everything but music. For once, don’t think.” The Goblin King smiled. It was a wicked grin, one that made me feel unsafe and excited at the same time. “Don’t think. Feel.”
As the goblins reside underground, Wintersong had the potential for some exquisite world-building. Though it was sufficient to fuel my imagination, the world-building could have been more extensive, more caring for detail. What Jae-Jones did fabulously was the creation of an atmosphere dark and sweet, like forbidden fruit. I’m content with the inclusion of folklore and how she transformed it. The story takes place in Bavaria, and though Jae-Jones plays with some clichés, for example the names, the setting is more or less authentic to someone who lives across the German border, though I do not pretend to be proficient in their folklore. Der Erlkönig is a German ballad written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, though the original tale is of Danish origin. Jae-Jones drew inspiration from the dark tale of an elf king who steals the life of a child, a tale of the subconscious, mystical lairs, and death. Jae-Jones decided to create a goblin version of this king, a Goblin King who lures young women into his lair, and combined with the elegant flow of her writing, the idea worked magnificently.
It is really quite saddening that the plot could not build on the promising world-building, dark atmosphere, and wicked characters. Though all of those elements had their flaws, I think an exciting plot could have compensated for them. It did not. As a most prominent issue, the plot is repetitive, so repetitive it borders on dull and boring. The storyline sways between nerve-wracking scenes, in which the Gobling King plays tricks on Liesl’s mind while she is trying to escape his lair, and utterly deflating ones which put a break on the picking-up of pace. Jae-Jones also brings music into focus – inspiration, composition, performance. On one hand, I enjoyed this aspect of the story because it breathed some life into the main character. Liesl composes with a fiery passion, weaving her emotions into her music. Music is her saviour and her poison. On the other hand, it left very little room for other things. Another I issue I had lies with the romantic subplot. Though the romance between Liesl and the Goblin King is dark, wicked, and steamy, it is also problematic. I have a strong dislike for stories where female characters discover their self-worth in the emotional and sexual desire of a love interest. The minute she realized she was desired by the Gobling King, the self-doubts and low self-esteem gave way to confidence, pride, and self-worth. Think about what kind of message books like these send to their female readers, girls and women? If someone gives you your value, it can also be taken away. I should say, however, that the ending is somewhat redeeming of this flaw.
In a nutshell, Wintersong lured me in with a promising premise the same way Käthe was by the sickly-sweet forbidden fruit, but the taste of these sweet fruit turned foul with the progress of a repetitive plot and a romance that is the opposite of empowering to women.