Once upon a time fairytale retellings were a rare thing, but nowadays, everyone seems to be doing it. S. Jae-Jones‘ debut, Wintersong (2017), promises a tale of the Goblin King fused with Germanic folklore. So how does Jae-Jones‘ contribution to this over-saturated genre fare?
Wintersong centres around Elisabeth — or Liesl, as she’s known — the unremarkable and “unlovely” eldest daughter of a musician. Like her father, music is the true love of her life, but it is her younger brother, the boy in the family, who gets to live out her dreams of becoming a musician, because of course, girls should be seen and not heard. Her sister, the beautiful Käthe, is too busy flouncing about town, flirting with anything that has a pulse, to see how much Liesl is suffering.
And suffer she does. For all her meek and mundane appearance, Liesl is full of feeling: jealousy of her brother and beautiful sister; resentment for her position and appearance; grief for her lost future — the list goes on. And perhaps most interesting of all, she feels longing (which, believe me, we’ll come back to).
One day when Liesl and her sister are at the market, Käthe, characteristically unable to resist temptation, takes a bite of the (actual) forbidden fruit and is whisked away to the lair of der Erlkönig — the goblin king. So now Liesl has a choice: allow her sister to languish and eventually die as his prisoner, or trade her life to save her sister’s.
But it turns out that the Goblin King has had ulterior motives all along. The snatching of Käthe was intended to snare Liesl all along, though our self-deprecating protagonist is pretty slow on the uptake: for why would anyone ever want plain, unremarkable Liesl?
And so begins the fantastical part of Wintersong’s tale: Liesl’s inevitable transition to the Goblin kingdom. It is an underground world of passion, debauchery, anarchy and excess: everything Liesl has resisted and rejected until now. But something in her is set free as she trades her life for her sister’s, and she finds herself changing rapidly, giving into the feeling she has denied for so long.
Cue the character arc. It is certainly satisfying to watch mousy Liesl change into the wanton, passionate young woman we’ve seen lying dormant in her for so long. And Jae-Jones certainly draws attention to the fact with rich, descriptive language, which has the tendency to be a little overdone at times. The Goblin king has his own transformation too: below the cunning trickster exterior lies a complicated soul with a torture backstory, and its unravelling is part of Liesl’s own growth.
The supporting cast is somewhat less fleshed out. Käthe herself doesn’t go much deeper than her passions; Liesl’s brother has the potential for a really interesting romantic subplot with a young black servant boy, but this isn’t developed beyond providing another way by which to alienate Liesl from her family.
Wintersong is no doubt going to be a hit with the YA crowd. It plays upon angsty teenage themes of alienation, not being understood, rejection, etc., etc. And what’s more, there is a definite theme of sexual awakening throughout the story which is sure to get the teens interested. This can be played a little heavy-handed at times, and there were certainly points where the story felt like a strange mash-up between Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but Jae-Jones’ solid and confident prose is enough to skim over such comparisons. Fans of fairytale and the film Labyrinth are sure to enjoy.
This sounds like it would be great for the right audience. Myself, I think I’m going to re-watch Labyrinth. :)