Review: Wintersong, by S. Jae-Jones

 

Publisher: Titan Books (UK)

Series/Stand-alone: Stand-alone

Genre: YA fantasy; fairytale retelling

Publication date: February 7th 2017

This edition: Paperback, advance review copy

 

All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her spirit and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl must 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. With time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

 

Reader, I had a moment of weakness. Contrary to my intention to refrain from accepting review requests for the time being, I jumped at the chance to accept this one. And all it took was two little words: “Goblin King”.

I learned to love David Bowie early, and I learned to love him fiercely. Discovering Labyrinth at a particular age only made it worse (or better, if this Jim Henson geek is being completely honest). But that’s an entirely different fangirl-sigh-encrusted topic altogether.

The similarities to Labyrinth, albeit without the singing and dancing fuzzy monster puppets, are shamelessly apparent in Wintersong – and I mean that in the best way possible. If, like me, you’re a fan of Labyrinth for certain very romantic reasons, then that alone would be reason enough for me to recommend this book. Its first half is a rather transparent homage to that story, and just in case that wasn’t awesome enough for you it folds a reworking of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” into the plot as well. The result is something deliciously dark and full of the right kind of dangerously sexy promise to hook me completely.

But that’s just the first half. These elements of Wintersong’s plot race along, fueled by some sharp characterisation, until the time comes to dig deeper than those stories we know into some very fascinating “what if?” territory. If the plot elements and homages I mentioned are a hook for the reader, they’re little more than that. They’re an effective hook, to be sure, but the rest of the book feels like a wonderful trick played on the reader. If the first half is all about wits and mind games and outsmarting the Goblin King, then the second half gets under the skin of its protagonist, down to the heart of the story that many Labyrinth fans have no doubt imagined lay beyond that film’s ‘happy’ ending.

What if the Goblin King won? What would become of his bride? For that matter, what would become of him?

These are the questions this book is really here to tackle, if the almost brisk pace of its first half is any indication. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an utterly fabulous first half. But the book’s real weight, its truer eloquence and ultimately its most heartwrenching romance, is in the story that comes after Liesl’s ‘defeat’. The twist which sees her remain Underground with the Goblin King (here he has no name, and that is very important for Reasons) is almost immaterial; this is not only a story about the things Liesl has to lose, but about everything she could gain. Her relationship with the Goblin King is vital to gaining an understanding of herself that life up above, lived without him, might never have offered her. But nothing that’s to be gained here will come without sacrifice, because let’s not forget whose story is entangled with hers…

There are more twists to that story that have a far greater impact than the first, which I don’t dare spoil for you, but trust me – by the time they came along I was taking it all so deeply to heart that they barely had to try in order to grip me harder.

This is a story that any Labyrinth fan who ever wondered “what if” needs in their life. It’s a story I’m glad I let into mine. It’s surprising in its cleverness, not because of the cleverness itself but because of everything it opens the door for. There’s music, beauty, love, horror, sex and tragedy. Everything that sells me on a fantasy story, basically. Wintersong has the complete package, and it’s damn near flawlessly wrapped.

The same goes for the Goblin King, because this IS a Labyrinth homage after all. Ahem.

So! As my first full book review of the year goes, this is setting a pretty damned high bar. My inner swooning teen is happy. My world-wearier adult mind is happy. My swooning adult self is pretty pleased too. No complaints here, and I’ll definitely be watching to see what this writer does next.

 

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