My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars
Length: 436 pages
Release date: 7 February 2017
All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her mind, her spirit, and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family’s inn, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away. But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds and the mysterious man who rules it – she soon faces an impossible decision. And with time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.
‘”I am,” I said slowly, “a girl with music in her soul. I am a sister, a daughter, a friend, who fiercely protects those dear to her. I am a girl who loves strawberries, chocolate torte, songs in a minor key, moments stolen from chores, and childish games. I am short-tempered yet disciplined. I am self-indulgent, selfish, yet selfless. I am compassion and hatred and contradiction. I am…me.”‘
I’ve been in a reading slump the past week, after reading two amazing 5-star novels in rapid succession (The Empress and The Cruel Prince, if you’d care to know) and realising that it’d be a long while before I got my hands on another book of equal calibre. It would require something strong to bring me back into the rhythm of reading, and Wintersong was exactly what I needed. I might be nine months late to the party on this count, but wow am I so glad I picked this up when I got the chance. S. Jae-Jones’s lush, beautifully written retelling of Labyrinth meets Cruel Beauty is a heart-wrenching and bittersweet tale that, in a good way, leaves you with more questions than answers.
As a piano player myself, I love the central role played by music. Jae-Jones clearly knows what she’s talking about here: Music is not just a placeholder artistic talent of the main character added to give her artificial depth; composing is literally Elisabeth’s life, and performance her family’s trade (before they fell on hard times, her father was a Salzburg violinist, and her mother a renowned singer). Living in early 19th-century Bavaria, her family now manage an inn but pin all their hopes on their only son and youngest child Josef, who at the beginning of the novel is about to audition before a respected musician in hopes of earning his own place at court. There are frequent references to Mozart, Haydn, Scarlatti, sonatas and intervals, arpeggios and chord progressions on the klavier. You don’t have to be well-versed in classical music to enjoy the story, but if you’re turned off by its narrative prominence, Wintersong may not be the book for you. For reference, we’re talking music that features in the actual plot as heavily as it does in The Phantom of the Opera. Personally, I savoured every moment that Elisabeth spent composing or performing.
The other motif that played a larger role than I expected, again to my pleasant surprise, was religion. Wintersong is nowhere near what I’d describe as Christian fiction, but it undoubtedly contains Christian themes. Elisabeth reads at times as a Christlike figure with the progression of her journey, and the relationship between selfishness and sacrifice is a frequently visited idea. The Bible is also cited quite a few times–the verses used are obscure enough that I couldn’t quite place them despite having a fairly decent knowledge of Scripture, and they always fit with the dialogue.
There’s still so much I could say about this book. What bears repeating is that it really is beautifully written, with especially evocative descriptions of emotion. The occasional foray into first-person present with the majority of the novel narrated in first-person past tense was executed flawlessly and with purpose, placing us directly amongst the action at the most important moments. The romance could have gone seriously wrong in a lot of ways when you consider the premise, but here it’s sweet and compelling and, most essentially, doesn’t overshadow Elisabeth’s relationships with and inner struggle about her family. The sex scenes, of which there are a few, are probably the most tasteful I’ll ever read in YA fiction. All in all, Wintersong is a book that works against all odds, evading pitfalls that trip up books built on far more orthodox premises. This debut evokes the feeling of a haunting melody, going far beyond the “Labyrinth retelling” pitch into an anti-fairytale that forces you to question what you most value and how much you would give up to liberate those you love.