YA Weekend: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (February 7, 2017)
Length: 436 pages
For the second time this year, a Young Adult novel has disappointed me by starting off with a lot of promise, only to completely fizzle out in the second half. Gah, I just want to slam my head against a wall. After all, it’s one thing to read a book I did not like, but it’s quite another to watch incredible potential end up being squandered.
To its credit, Wintersong did have a great start. In fact the book had one of the most well-written and put together intros I’d ever read. The story begins in a simple 18th-19th century Bavarian village, where our protagonist Liesl and her family run an inn. All her life, she has heard tales of the mysterious Goblin King, a dangerous trickster who rules the Underworld and stalks the forests around their home, waiting to enrapture his next victim. An aspiring composer, Liesl has allowed these stories be her inspiration, even though she hides her talent from the world. In her family, it is her little brother who is destined for greatness, and all of Liesl’s efforts have gone into making sure that young Josef will get noticed and receive his apprenticeship.
But soon, our protagonist realizes she has made a mistake. With everyone’s attention on Josef, it is Liesl’s younger sister Käthe who has paid the price. One night, Käthe goes missing, stolen away by the Goblin King. Blaming herself for her sister’s plight, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underworld in the hopes of finding a way to rescue her. However, once faced with the Goblin King himself, she is reminded that in accordance with the Old Laws, Käthe’s freedom can only be bought with a sacrifice. The only choice Liesl has is to offer herself in her sister’s place, a trade that the Goblin King accepts.
While this is nothing terribly groundbreaking as far as folklore/fairy-tale inspired retellings go, I was initially impressed by Wintersong because of the writing. Whatever the story lacked in originality was made up for by S. Jae-Jones’ beautiful style, which is bursting with rich description and yet still incredibly easy on the eyes. For a debut novelist, she has a master’s talent for conveying a perfect atmosphere for whatever scene she is writing, and even a predictable plot could not prevent me from getting into the story. It helped that the beginning few chapters were so full of interesting conflicts, like the preparations for Josef’s once-in-a-lifetime audition or Käthe’s impending marriage to Liesl’s childhood sweetheart. Liesl herself intrigued me as a character, for even though she was the stereotypical bland and self-sacrificing older sister, I sympathized with her because of all that she’s had to give up for her family.
If I could have rated sections of Wintersong individually, I would have given the first half 4 or 5 stars—I just loved it that much. I was psyched. Imagine that, a book that has been described as Labyrinth meets Beauty and the Beast, actually living up to the hype.
But alas, it seemed I’d gotten my hopes up too soon. Around halfway, the story took such a steep nose-dive that I have to wonder if the second half had been treated to the same amount of scrutiny while in the editing phases. Barely anything happened. Liesl became a completely ineffectual, tedious character. The narrative spent an inordinate amount of time getting into the minutiae of musical theory. The story became an almost unbearable chore to read.
Once again I blame an awkward romance. While I can see how some readers might find the dark and sexy undertones beneath Liesl and the Goblin King’s relationship appealing, I believe a satisfying and realistic love story should encompass a lot more than that. What I missed from their entire courtship was a sense of chemistry or anything to convince me that there was something deeper, and unfortunately the longer the story belabored their hokey romance the more exasperated I became with everything.
It’s a real shame, because Wintersong could have been great, but sadly the promise shown in the intro did not extend into the rest of the book. At the end of the day, I simply wanted more to happen in the story, I needed more agency in the protagonist, and I needed a lot more conflict than just the cloying empty calories of a romantic drama. I do think that the author will have a long and successful writing career ahead of her though (because man, she can really write), and I am definitely open to the possibility of reading more of her books, but ultimately this one was just not for me.