by by S. Jae-Jones
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.
My feelings are extremely mixed when it comes to Wintersong. I wasn't quite disappointed by it, but I was frustrated at what I thought were a lot of missed opportunities and drastic ups and downs that could have been smoothed out with another few rounds of edits. I've seen the author do some really good, sweet things for her readers, and I truly admire that about her. I loved the cover art and the way the book starts out, so I was sort of hesitant to write this review. Even so, I have to be honest. Let's start with the good!
The imagery and tone of this book (while lost a couple of times) is overall a real strong suit of the story. The rhythm of the words and the descriptions used evoke the original Grimms Fairy Tales, full of dark, romantic notes and tension (separate from the actual moments of romance present in the novel). The best description that sticks with me is a scene where Liesl's sister eats a peach, a scene full of multi-layered symbolism that catches the reader's attention.
The mystery within the novel is also compelling. This centers around the Goblin King, of course, as well as the world of the Underground. As for her world building, the Underground is quite fascinating and easy to picture in one's mind. The creatures of the Underground are also thoroughly entrancing and easy to picture, though they weren't always consistent. The Goblin King himself reminded me powerfully of Howl from Howl's Moving Castle, both in appearance and behavior, which is certainly not a bad thing...however, continue reading this in the bad.
On the Goblin King, the romance in the book was wonderful. Though confusing at times (especially the timing, which is discussed in the next section), I thought it had an organic sort of growth and Ms. Jae-Jones did a great job balancing tension with loads of emotional depth and history on both sides.
One of my first and most glaring issues with Wintersong was the lack of clear placement in time. The argument can be made that this is a fairy tale/fantasy and therefore exists out of time, but even so, there were enough places in which modernity crept in as to distract me from the flow and structure of the story. This happened quite often with the language being used, particularly with the Goblin King himself. Jae-Jones wrote these beautiful passages of dialogue and thoughts, then sort of tossed that tone out the window for a couple of lines before returning to it. Again, this could have been fixed with more rounds of edits.
On the time frame, this could have been more of a personal issue than one inherent with the book, but it was enough that it kept me frustrated for the first 2-4 chapters. There is no clear time period or setting given, though German names and terminology are used. Again, I understand this might have been meant to set it vaguely in the time frame of a Grimm fairy tale, or to give it that tone, but it failed for me. I was more and more frustrated until I finally saw some detail about her father performing around the time of Mozart and was able to settle my mind in that regard.
The pacing of the story was another issue for me. Not only were some characters inconsistent (in a non-purposeful way), and perhaps this is what Jae-Jones intended (for there to be long lulls with rapid action), but it just didn't work that well. The most memorable scenes for their utter confusion are those in which Liesl is either attempting to enter or escape the Underground. I believe there is a way to add that frantic tension and raise the stakes without completely confusing the reader as to where the character is and what is happening to where they lose their place in the story and have to reread a passage several times. Obscurity has its place, but shouldn't be used to the point a reader gets lost in a story (and not in a good way).
In the end, the story just felt insubstantial and bloated at the same time. The really solid, deep sections full of emotional depth and challenging thoughts were flung through the story in odd sections, dispersed among bloated passages describing the underworld, Liesl's struggle with music, finding dresses, and other such things. Each element was important, of course, but the odd jumping back and forth between such sections caused a lot of the pacing problems and allowed me to set my book down for days at a time, something I normally do not do when reading a new story.
I really wanted to like Wintersong. I found it popping up all over bookstagram, and I wanted so, so badly to fall in love with it like so many others where. Unfortunately, that just wasn't the case—though certain parts had my heart pounding and my feet dancing around. I really wish this story, like so many other young adult novels these days, could have had at least 2-3 more rounds with a good editor. There were some parts scattered throughout that were so, so good, they were just hidden behind all the meh moments to the point I lost interest time and again. Read the book if you want, but if you're after a story with sisters, a mysterious bigger-than-life figure, adventure, darkness, and romance, go for Caraval (which I'll be reviewing soon).