The one thing I knew for absolute certain about Wintersong before I started reading it was this: it was inspired, in ways, by the film Labyrinth. It had been years since the last time I saw Labyrinth, so I went out of my way to watch it again in January and refresh my memory. High on affection for the film, I dove straight into reading this debut novel.
Wintersong is about Liesl, a practical, hard-working gal devoted to her family. She is also a girl who secretly dreams of composing music, inspired heavily by the Goblin King. She hasn't seen him since she was a child, but his reappearance in her life is sudden and startling - especially when her sister Käthe is kidnapped and taken underground to his realm. Liesl makes the journey to rescue Käthe, but is forced to offer her hand in marriage in exchange for her sister's freedom. As she grows accustomed to life underground, Liesl soon discovers that she still harbors a strong connection to the Goblin King, her childhood playmate who is now her husband. But even as sparks fly, even as her musical abilities soar, both Liesl and the Goblin King are forced to reevaluate just what sacrifices they are willing to make.
The parallels between the film and the novel are obvious - the self-centered nature of the protagonist, the kidnapping of a beloved sibling, and the journey underground. All of these things are really front and center in the first half of Wintersong, when Käthe is kidnapped and Liesl goes after her. It is this part of the novel that I really liked best, as I'm always partial to stories of strong sibling relationships and exciting adventures of rescue. In addition to the story, I found the setting wonderfully immersive since Jae-Jones does well in bringing the variety of settings (village, the inn, the woods, the underground) and characters (Liesl, Liesl's family, the Goblin King) to life. Throw in the way music is woven in, the warring natures in Liesl (selfless versus selfish), and that'll basically be all the reasons I thought the first half was pretty good.
You might be wondering - what about the second half of Wintersong? Well, before going into it, I actually thought that the entirety of the story was about Liesl's journey underground to rescue Käthe. So, I was surprised to discover that the second half of this story was something else entirely: an in-depth look at the blossoming romance between Liesl and the Goblin King, coupled with Liesl's flourishing musical talent. It was definitely an unexpected change of pace! I liked that Liesl felt free to express herself musically, and that she was provided with the means to do so. But I'm of mixed stance on the romance, since there were both sweet moments and uncomfortable ones in turn. I wound up not being entirely fond of this part of the story, even though I was still interested enough to find out how it would come to an end.
In sum, my feelings are quite mixed towards Wintersong. I enjoyed the first half, but didn't love the second half. I didn't connect with any of the characters or feel like I truly got to know them, but I thought the setting was immersive and the incorporation of music well-done. While I wouldn't be quick to give this one a general recommendation, if you think it'll be your cup of tea, then I would say go forth and read.
Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones
Publisher: Thomas Dunne | Publication Date: February 7, 2017
Source: e-ARC downloaded from NetGalley (Thanks!)