Published by Thomas Dunne Books, Titan Books on February 7th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Plain, dutiful Liesl has given up her dreams of music to help her mother tend their inn, but when she was a child she played in the woods with the Goblin King. Her beautiful younger sister Käthe is tone deaf, engaged to the man Liesl once hoped to marry, but she dreams of bigger places than their small village in the Bavarian forest. But the Goblin King does not forget and if he does not take a bride the world will fall into eternal winter. Which sister will he take? Which sister will he keep?
I have a soft spot for books that take well-established sources and weave old tropes into something magical and new. In Wintersong, S Jae-Jones takes an inch of Labyrinth, a pinch of Rossetti’s Goblin Market, and a hint of the Rape of Persephone to create a Germanic fairytale romance: dark, Gothic, and sultry.
The disadvantage of retreading a well-worn path is that it can rob a story of surprises. Thankfully, Jae-Jones can write – her prose is as lush as her narrative – so even when things feel a little too familiar (peaches, masked balls, heterochromia), they’re still a delight to read. The better news is that Wintersong lays out its stall, entices you to buy something familiar, then sweeps you off to a dimly-lit back room full of exciting new wares: the second half of the book switches from sisterly rescue to hot-blooded romance as the new Goblin Queen discovers the delights and dangers of her marriage.
But why be coy: anyone familiar with the story – or indeed fairytale tropes – will be clear that the Goblin King has no interest in beautiful, flirtatious Käthe except as a route to Liesl. The question from the start is whether Liesl has the care and the courage to save her sister from his clutches – especially once she realises what it means giving up. Without skipping a beat, Jae-Jones gets to explore sisterly love, sibling rivalry, a searing choice between hollow fantasy and painful reality – and then a second, even more difficult choice between life and death. The Goblin King must have a wife, or the world is condemned to eternal winter. The narrative relies heavily on the fact that Liesl believes it, having been raised on her grandmother’s fairy tales.
Once Liesl ascends to the throne, the Gothic romance is played to the hilt. The Goblin King is tormented, a reluctant husband with a mysterious past who wants only to free Liesl from her self-imposed restraint so that she may return to composing. Liesl is more interested in abandoning sensual constraints – but sexual abandon will come at a high price. Winter is fended off with her life force; his desire will literally kill her.
And this is pretty much my only problem with Wintersong from start to finish – I’m uncomfortable with its ambivalent attitudes towards sex. There’s a strong suggestion that Käthe invites her abduction with her sensuality and flirting, a little whiff that she deserves it for her licentious behaviour. Plain, pure Liesl is quick to judge her sister. She herself is safe from the goblins because she rarely gives way to temptation; when she does, there are always consequences. Even when Liesl is married off, desire is dangerous. For a book that revels in its passions, it feels like a mixed message. For a book written in 2016, it feels terribly old-fashioned.
While this is a recurring theme that bothered me each time it reared its head, it wasn’t enough to diminish my overall enjoyment of the book. I have a big soft spot for stories about musicians, and Wintersong is defined by its music as much as its romance. But Jae-Jones also builds an excellent fairytale world – I adored the rendering of the Underground and was enchanted by Liesl’s goblin girl attendants from the moment they were introduced. Thistle and Twig are distinct, mischievous, and ambiguous – I loved Thistle’s refusal to warm up to Liesl even once she was made Queen, remaining as spiky as her name implies. In fact, I loved the goblin girls (and the changelings) considerably more than the rather erratic Goblin King (and while I appreciate that his behaviour is eventually explained, the point remains).
The book ends with a strong suggestion that we can expect a sequel, although it works perfectly well as a stand alone. There are some dangling threads that I’d happily see explored further, but the emotional rollercoaster provides a fulfilling ride as it stands. A dark, intoxicating tale for those in the mood for Gothic romance.