My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Length: 384 pages
Release date: 6 February 2018
Six months after the end of Wintersong, Liesl is working toward furthering both her brother’s and her own musical careers. Although she is determined to look forward and not behind, life in the world above is not as easy as Liesl had hoped. Her younger brother Josef is cold, distant, and withdrawn, while Liesl can’t forget the austere young man she left beneath the earth, and the music he inspired in her.
When troubling signs arise that the barrier between worlds is crumbling, Liesl must return to the Underground to unravel the mystery of life, death, and the Goblin King—who he was, who he is, and who he will be. What will it take to break the old laws once and for all? What is the true meaning of sacrifice when the fate of the world—or the ones Liesl loves—is in her hands?
“You didn’t tell me living would be one decision after another, some easy, some difficult. You didn’t tell me living wasn’t a battle, but a war. You didn’t tell me that living was a choice, and that every day I choose to continue was another victory, another triumph.”
On one hand, Shadowsong is the beautiful, exquisite companion to its predecessor, made even lovelier in paperback form with a gorgeous cover and design. On the other, I wish there would have been more. Not only that more would have happened, even though that’s part of it, but also that we would have gotten more Liesl, more suspense, more of what made Wintersong one of my most memorable reads of 2017.
Wintersong blew me away with its sheer ambition, the way it owned its identity that was built on music, mystery and passion. Stood side by side, Shadowsong is just missing a little je ne sais quoi.
The entire Prochàzka sequence, taken straight out of a Gothic novel, feels oddly out of place. The Wild Hunt and the Goblin King are both referred to frequently but barely appear. The latter in particular is a big issue for some people. Fortunately I was prepared for it going in, having read another review, but more on that later.
The ending is heartrending. It also feels a little cheap. It would be less so if we got more of other characters’ POVs beside Liesl’s over the course of the story–we do get their perspectives, to some extent, but Josef we see in 3rd person limited only, while Käthe and François (both narratively more important than they were in Wintersong) are relegated to a mere few chapters of 3rd person objective.
It’s not enough, because while Wintersong was very much centred on Liesl, Shadowsong is not. And because all of a sudden the story is no longer hers, she is no longer a sufficient narrator for everything that happens. Liesl’s journey is still important in this book, but it’s not the only main storyline, and I’d argue that it’s not even the most important one.
Overall, these observations add up to the criticisms that Shadowsong is a) underwhelming, because the plot is too uneventful and it doesn’t deliver on expectations of the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King and b) not as compelling as it should have been, because the book isn’t really about Liesl anymore, yet Liesl is still our main conduit into it.
I get both criticisms. Both of them are true to a certain extent, and as you can see from what I’ve already said, I’m not arguing that Shadowsong is innocent of these faults. But where I feel it’s unfair to continue criticising Shadowsong is when we cross the line from judging it based on the author’s intentions and artistic ambitions to judging it based on our self-imposed expectations as readers. Let me contextualise my statement here, with the beginning of S. Jae-Jones’s own Author’s Note.
“All books are mirrors of the author in some way or another, and Liesl’s journey to the Underground and back perhaps reveals more about me than I first realised. If Wintersong was my bright mirror, reflecting all my wish-fulfilment dreams about having my voice recognised and valued, then Shadowsong is my dark one, showing me how all the monstrous parts of the Underground were really another facet of me.”
Later, she adds:
“In many ways, Shadowsong is a far more personal work than its predecessor.”
Jae-Jones goes on to write about the various mental health-related themes that Shadowsong invokes, many of which are drawn from her own demons. I didn’t know before reading the Author’s Note (placed at the start of the novel, for maximum effect) that Liesl was written as a bipolar character. And while this may not be obvious just by reading her, especially to me not being familiar with symptoms of bipolar disorder, to say it didn’t change how I saw her would be a lie.
That’s because, as Jae-Jones eloquently puts it herself, all main characters have something of their author in them. In most cases it’s more subtle than the perennially maligned Mary Sue, but I believe that novels–especially psychological suspense/fantasy novels as evocative as Shadowsong will necessarily reflect their artists.
What this whole tangent means for Shadowsong is that ugly/unsatisfying/underwhelming as it may appear, this is the story the author really wanted to tell. Even more so than Wintersong. That I completely admire, even in the midst of my disappointment at the slow pace and lack of character interaction.
Shadowsong may not be a romance, but it’s definitely a love story–between the Vogler siblings, between Liesl and her craft, between S. Jae-Jones and hers. Any one of those or all of them at the same time apply, depending on how you choose to read this intense, soul-searching novel.
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