Book review: Wintersong, S. Jae-Jones

If you come to S. Jae-Jones’ Wintersong expecting a Labyrinth retelling, you are definitely going to get one, but this is a story that runs much deeper than that. It is also about sexual awakening, and learning who you are in the world. And it is about how women are constantly ordered to make bad false choices and unacceptable sacrifices and they are supposed to swallow it and be fine with it, because, hey, that’s the way it goes.

Elizabeth — Liesl — comes from a musical family, but she’s trapped helping run the family inn, because her father is concentrating his hopes and dreams on her talented brother, and her sister is about to marry, and seems at times focused mostly on what’s important to her. She’s set aside her own musical inclinations, even as she was forced to cobble musical skills together by trial and error and skulking along the margins. She’s expected to look after her siblings, especially her fragile, delicate brother.

She still remembers her childhood, when she played in a forest grove and imagined herself a friend of the Goblin King, but those days are over. She is slowly dulling away, sapped of colour and life, doomed to serve others for the rest of eternity. When her brother is set to audition for a music teacher who could whisk him away to new opportunities, she’s stuck going to the market with her sister, where she encounters a strange, beautiful man who gives her a flute, and sees a glimpse of laughter and life and music, and then realises she’s lost her sister.

She’s forced to enter the Goblin King’s layer after her sister Kathe, wandering a strange underground world as she learns that he’s taken her as a bride, but he’s willing to make a swap. If she agrees to stay underground forever, he’ll release her sister for freedom, but taking the trade comes at a high cost. She will be dead to her family, and her life will slowly bleed away as the Goblin King draws upon her — and if she tries to flee, the world below won’t be the only thing that dies away without her, because the human world will be pitched into eternal winter.

As in Labyrinth, this is a story about a kind of naive person delving into the underworld to rescue a sibling, and there’s a whole lot of music involved. The story revolves around music and it’s a constant thread as she both composes and plays music in a lyrical storyline that runs throughout. It’s how she communicates her feelings, how she interacts with the Goblin King in many scenes, and how she realises that this will never be enough, and she needs to be in the outside world to be fulfilled and happy.

Music isn’t the only thing that stirs her, though. This is an extremely sensual book for YA, and at times it gets pretty explicit. She is a young woman who is experiencing a sexual awakening as she feels powerfully drawn to the Goblin King, and savours bitter memories of her interest in a man aboveground who treated her shabbily. She knows what her body wants and she’s clear about communicating it, and expressing sexual frustration.

The sensuousness of the language wraps around that. This is a sultry, evocative, descriptive book, and it manages to use stunning prose without making it cloying, which is, as we know, tricky. It feels rich and lush, like you truly are being pulled into a strange fantasy world, but it’s not just shiny like a new penny. It’s gritty, and dirty, and it smells bad, and it’s sharp and acrid and harsh, too. The scenery is layered and complicated, without cluttering the narrative — I can visualise what the characters see and interact with because it’s painted in broad strokes, rather than being meticulously detailed.

There are places where the language gets a little repetitive, and it’s sometimes challenging to tell if it’s a deliberately echoed effect or simply the reappearance of some distinctive phrases. In music, it’s common for key bits to repeat themselves and weave back upon each other and get built up and broken down over the course of a composition. In many ways, this feels like a musical composition, right down to the varied pacing in each section. So it’s possible that these repetitive structures were very conscious and thoughtful; I’d like to read again specifically thinking about that craft decision.

Lisel is in the position of being a woman in an era where women were expected to subvert everything to the men around them without fighting back or considering their own a way. In many ways, women are dealing with those issues now, too, so let’s not pretend this is a thing of the past. I appreciate works that delve into this, that look at the choices women are supposed to make in a way that’s tonally complex. This isn’t a selfish girl refusing to think about her family. Nor is it a selfish family that takes and takes and doesn’t give, making it easy for you to just hate them because they hold her back. Instead, you’re forced to actually engage with them as people and the lines become blurrier and harder to navigate.

What are you willing to sacrifice for family? What makes you rise up to take something for yourself?

Image: icy trees, Dustin Oliver, Flickr