Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.
All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.
But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.
Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.
Wintersong will definitely not be for everyone. It’s far from perfect. In fact, there are a lot of aspects where, if you just described them to me, I would go “eh, not for me”. But here’s the thing: Wintersong was a lot of fun? It was engaging and fast and clear wish fulfillment and I ended up really connecting with the main character. There were a lot of aspects that fell flat for me too and I wasn’t super-invested in the romance. Which is weird when you think about it, since this book revolves entirely around a romance and yet I said it was really fun. Oh well.
(Before I get in-depth, note that I have never seen or really know anything about the movie Labyrinth, which this is based off/inspired by, except what little I gathered from that one time I watched the Honest Trailer for it. So I know that David Bowie’s in it, and he’s a Goblin King.)
First, let’s talk about the romance, because that’s super central. What drew me to this book was the A Court of Mist and Fury vibes I was getting when I was seeing it promoted and, despite its many flaws, I love A Court of Mist and Fury. (It’s fun! Feyre and Rhys have awesome chemistry!) Wintersong didn’t quite live up to that.
First off, I’m just never a fan of the “super-old-guy-who-looks-young falls for teenager/young woman” trope, which this fell into. (I think? There were some aspects of the Goblin King I wasn’t quite clear on.) It’s just not realistic. They’re going to have different maturity levels and life experiences. That’s just a fact. That being said, if I’m invested enough in the romance (see ACOMAF), I’m willing to look past it. But I just wasn’t. I mean, the Goblin King was… fine? He wasn’t bad. He had decent chemistry with Liesl. I liked how he supported her and stuff. I really don’t know what to say here. I mean, I wanted them to be together while I was reading. It just wasn’t one of those all-consuming ships, if you know what I mean?
Another meh thing was the fact that there were a lot of clear tropes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! I liked S. Jae-Jones’ take on some. I tend to enjoy anything “death and the maiden”, even if it’s not subverted. (Or “death and the young man”. Or just “death”. Death personified is always cool.) I can have a lot of fun with the “falling-in-love-with-the-villain” thing. But I’m also tired of the “tortured, dark hero draws away from his true love because he’s so daaaaaaaark” and the Goblin King’s interactions with Liesl sometimes veered into cheesyness.
I really liked Liesl. Bitter, angry, brave, afraid, stubborn, hopeful Liesl. There are a lot of aspects of her character that, when I think about them, feel like stereotypical YA protagonist stuff. (She’s so plain! She doesn’t feel good enough! But the sparkle speshul boy lurve her!) Part of that is just how these wish-fulfillment narratives work, but, for some reason, it felt more relatable here than most of the time. I think it’s because when she tells us she’s plain, nobody contradicts her. Instead, they present her with other ways that she’s special. Her talent as a composer. Her stubborness. Her protectiveness. Her imagination. It was made very clear that Liesl was attractive, but it wasn’t dependent on beauty. (Maybe attractive enough for a decent guy in the village, not the immortal Goblin King, but I didn’t pick this up for realism.)
Another place I thought it succeeded was at exploring female sexuality. Liesl is the good girl. Her sister Käthe is not. Käthe dresses provocatively and flirts and is beautiful and Liesl resents her for that. (And that was another part of her characterization that rang true for me.) Käthe takes a bite from the goblin fruit at the first opportunity. (A lot of the imagery was very 1700s/1800s sexuality metaphors.) Early on, that is presented as a bad thing. But, as the story progresses, Liesl learns to embrace her own hopes and desires. She accepts her talent as a composer, she accepts her sexuality as a woman, and she accepts herself as a person. That’s something that’s still hard for teenage girls today, and not a bad thing to draw from a fluffy YA fantasy.
So why did I enjoy this book? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was that clicked with me. The romance was fun but forgettable, in many ways, it was a stereotypical YA romance-fantasy, although it did have a pretty relatable lead. Will everyone enjoy this book? Absolutely not. But if you’re in the mood for something filled with romance and melodrama, this is a solid pick.