“Such sensuous enjoyment.”
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley.)
I surveyed my kingdom. Chaos. Cruelty. Abandon. I had always been holding back. Always been restrained. I wanted to be bigger, brighter, better; I wanted to be capricious, malicious, sly. Until now, I had not known the intoxicating sweetness of attention. In the world above, it had always been Käthe or Josef who captivated people’s eyes and hearts—Käthe with her beauty, Josef with his talent. I was forgotten, overlooked, ignored—the plain, drab, practical, talentless sister. But here in the Underground, I was the sun around which their world spun, the axis around which their maelstrom twirled. Liesl the girl had been dull, drab, and obedient; Elisabeth the woman was a queen.
“I may be just a maiden, mein Herr,” I whispered. “But I am a brave maiden.”
When Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is claimed by the Goblin King and kidnapped to the Underground, it’s up to Liesl to rescue her. After all, it’s Liesl and her mother who keep the family together and the inn running. Plain, drab, boring Liesl, who lacks Käthe’s voluptuous beauty, or her brother Josef’s virtuosity with the violin. Liesl, who composes her wild and untamed music only under the cloak of night; the music Josef polishes and performs to accolades, but for which Liesl seeks neither praise nor recognition. Like legions of unremarkable girls before her, Liesl labors in the background, her accomplishments usurped or denigrated by the men around her, depending on the circumstances.
Yet the Goblin King – Der Erlkönig, Lord of Mischief – sees Liesl for who she truly is: a unique talent, full of beauty and grace. A soul brimming with passion and wonder – and, yes, even anger and lust. A worthy opponent. The girl with whom he once sang and danced in Goblin Grove, all those years ago. The girl who forgot him – and her promise to him – once she traded in their silly childhood games for a mop and bucket and likely spinsterhood.
Liesl descends into the Underground on a sacrifice of sheet music, only to find that her mission to rescue Käthe is just the opening round of her game with Der Erlkönig. Once a mortal man, the Goblin King sacrificed his soul to bring peace to the world above. Now he is forever confined to the Underground, where he rules over the goblins and fae who once wreaked havoc on earth. But in order to turn the seasons, he requires a spark. Passion. A wife. Yet Der Erlkönig’s brave maidens do not survive long in the Underground – and, should Liesl succeed in freeing Käthe, he will need a replacement if spring is to come.
I generally lean more heavily toward scifi vs. fantasy, but I enjoyed this story so, so much. Jae-Jones’s writing is captivating: lush and whimsical, with a quaint, olden times vibe. (It takes place in Bavaria, maybe one or two centuries ago.) It frequently brought to mind Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen, not necessarily in the plot or tone of the story, but simply in the way it made me feel: like I was devouring a delicious, delectable pastry, so elaborately decorated and lovingly made so as to resemble a fine work of art. The frequent allusions to Liesl’s music are particularly stirring – even though I know very little about the process or art of making music.
Comparisons to Labyrinth are unavoidable, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fan cast David Bowie as the Goblin King, no matter the form he took: austere young man, icy and cruel King, or impish little boy. Jae-Jones does an excellent job of conjuring Jareth’s spirit, and then adding to it, layer by layer, until we’re left with a complex, complicated Goblin King who’s as deserving of our empathy as our fear and awe.
And lust! Wintersong is a dark, sexy, sometimes dangerous book. It can be a risky endeavor, this blend of sex and violence in art, since the result usually feels at least a little rapey. (Or straight-up condones rape.) Yet here it works, and works well: the Puritanical time that Liesl lives in, coupled with her own personal deprivations, have transformed Liesl into a fortress, or a shell. It’s up to the Goblin King to disassemble Liesl’s walls and then help rebuild her. One of my favorite lines in the book is when he asks Liesl, “When will you be selfish? When will you ever do anything for yourself?” When, indeed. (Self-care ftw!)
I suspect that many women will be able to relate to Liesl on multiple levels (though hopefully fewer than in days past!). Though she’s clearly a genius in her own right, her needs – for education, recognition, encouragement – are supplanted by those of her brother. Father Georg refuses to recognize talent when it’s packaged in a feminine form – yet when Josef performs Liesl’s music, it’s just further proof of his talent. (Grrrr!)
Respecting women? Treating them as equals? Refreshing, and sexy AF, okay. Der Erlkönig, we never stood a chance.
I also really loved the subplot with Josef. (Who, it should be said, doesn’t actively work to undermine Liesl, but seems to internalize some of his father’s/society’s misogyny just the same.) I won’t delve into all the details, but I’d love a novella, either from Josef or François’s perspective.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Liesl’s father Georg is abusive and an alcoholic. Her father was once “a violinist nonpareil, who had once played with the finest court musicians in Salzburg”, and her mother a great beauty and “a singer in a troupe, before poverty chased us to the backwoods of Bavaria.” Now they are innkeepers; Liesl keeps the family together, while her mom tends to the inn.
Liesl’s fourteen-year-old brother Josef is gay; he and François, Master Antonius’s servant/apprentice, begin a romantic relationship during their tour.
François is black and a former (current?) slave. In Master Antonius’s words, “I picked him up as a babe from a traveler from Saint-Domingue. His mother was a slave back in Hispaniola, and his father some no-account sailor. Not a shred of musical ability between the two of them, and look at him now! Proof that if you get them young, you can train these Negroids like any other person.”
(fwiw, Liesl describes Master Antonius as an all-around horrible human being, including in his treatment of François.)
Updated to add: In a recent newsletter, S. Jae-Jones says that she imagined Liesl to be bipolar. Though I didn’t pick up on this during my readings, in retrospect it certainly fits with her behavior.
Animal-friendly elements: n/a