Friday, 12 May 2017


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.

There was one thing, and one thing alone, that made me want to pick up this book. David Bowie.

The basic premise of the movie Labyrinth has been done countless times before, but because this book went all in with the Goblin King - rather than swapping him out for a vampire or faery or more traditional attractive creature of myth - I was sold. Unfortunately though, despite a head full of Bowie, I didn't enjoy the book all that much.

Wintersong suffers somewhat by comparison because I recently read Caraval by Stephanie Garber, which has a similar premise - girl follows beautiful, mysterious stranger into a dangerous other world to rescue her younger, tempestuous sister - but a far better execution. Wintersong starts well, and the author certainly has a beautiful writing style. They also get major points for all the music references! I played the flute through most of my childhood and teenage years, so all the musical and composition terms took me back. The power of music can never be underestimated, and I really felt the author's love for it. Because this book is a retelling of a story that's been done lots of times before in various guises, the prevalence of music in the story gives it a nice twist and brings something fresh to what could have ended up being just another retread.

The first third or so of the book, setting the scene of a snowy village and the mysterious Goblin King that is known to walk it in search of a bride, is equal parts poetic and intriguing. It's a bit slow (which, again, suffered from my comparison to Caraval's super-tight opening), but things pick up when Liesl's sister is seduced by said Goblin King and follows him to the underworld, leaving Liesl to follow on the promise that, if she can rescue her sister, they'll both be allowed to go free. Again, major Caraval vibes here! I really loved the portrayal of Liesl's family as being a flawed but tight unit. They have their struggles, their problems and their mouldering resentments, but they clearly love each other very much, which makes Liesl's decision to venture into the underworld believable, even when it should be questionable to say the least.

Unfortunately, after a promising opening, the second third of the book is where things really started to fall apart for me. After Liesl becomes the Goblin Queen, mentions of her beloved family are abruptly dropped for a huge chunk of the story, and we're treated to one creepy not-quite-sex scene after another. Seriously, page after page is dedicated to repetitive scenes with lots of heavy breathing and rubbing against each other, only for Liesl to wake up somewhere else. I really hated the fact that Lisel was constantly throwing herself at the Goblin King in some sort of attempt to prove to herself that she was desirable. I never really believed she wanted to have sex with him, only that she wanted him to make her feel better about herself, so it made for really uncomfortable reading. And when they do finally have sex, there's some vague references to pain and fullness, Liesl cries and that's it. What an anticlimax - no pun intended!

Not much else happens for this part of the story, so when the plot finally kicks back in and starts to delve back into the Liesl's curse in the underworld and her family back on the surface, it feels rushed, like the author got so carried away writing the swoony scenes that they then had to rush the plot. By which time, I'd disengaged with the book, and the revelations weren't enough to get me back.

I just didn't buy Liesl and the Goblin King. There's a brief prologue of their playing as children which is fleshed out near the end, but I didn't feel these two were soul mates or star-crossed lovers or anything like that. They just seemed to be two people drawn together by a toxic combination of loneliness and desperation. Seriously, the level of co-dependency between these two is majorly unhealthy. Liesl's entire self worth is defined by whether or not the Goblin King wants her. Even her decision to agree to marry him reads more like she's more swept away by the fact that somebody - anybody - wants her than a sacrifice for her sister's sake. I don't think that was the intention, but the fact that Liesl and the Goblin King marry immediately after her sister is set free and she jumps on him within a matter of paragraphs, all the while thinking how great it is to finally be wanted and taking great offence when he rejects her (assuming it's because she's so ugly even a goblin wouldn't want her), doesn't do much to undermine my interpretation. But if I didn't feel the character of Liesl, the Goblin King is pretty much guaranteed awesomeness, right?


Oh, the Goblin King. How did it go so wrong? There's humanising the bad guys, and then there's going too far and turning them into a simpering wet blanket, and that's what happened for me. He starts as the King of Mischief, all seduction and trickery and the kind of magnificent bastard who you know isn't totally beyond redemption. And then all the mystery and intrigue is peeled away, and we're left with a soppy, self-pitying sap. Even picturing David Bowie as the Goblin King couldn't save him in my eyes. I guess some people would love to read the insecure, lonely man behind the mysterious legend, but for me, the ratio of badass Goblin King to whiny house husband was too heavily weighted towards the latter.

The story itself picks back up in the final act - almost like someone suddenly remembered there was a story in amidst all the dry-humping - as the reality of living in the underworld begins to catch up with Liesl and she gets a bit of her fire and independence back. The ending saves this book from being one star, as Liesl finally gains some autonomy and finally snaps out of her and the Goblin King's shared psychosis. I really hope there's no sequel to this book, because the ending of this one has a beautiful poignancy. Ultimately though, Wintersong was one of those books that it undeniably very good, but I really didn't enjoy it.

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