Map of Blue Book Balloon

6 February 2017

Review: Wintersong

Image from
S Jae-Jones
Titan Books, 7 February 2017
PB, 512pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
Inspired by Christina Rossetti's poem Goblin Market, this is the story of Liesl, her sister Käthe and brother Josef. It's set in the elegant late 18th or early 19th century - the period, in style at least, to which traditional fairy stories seem to look back (perhaps because that's when they were first compiled and published?) there's a background of middle Europe: forests, the distant capitals of Paris or Vienna, marching armies, the rivalry of master (never, of course, mistress) musicians.

Your love is killing him.

Josef, a talented violinist, has a chance of joining this glamorous life. In contrast to such dreams, Liesl's world is circumscribed, her talents as a composer scorned by their father, a drunken innkeeper. Little surprise perhaps that her thoughts turn to childhood days playing with the imagined Goblin King in the forest...

But it's not Liesl who seems in danger when the strange merchants turn up in the market square of the village one day, selling their ripe and tempting fruits. Rather, Käthe seems likely to be swept off her feet by the stranger who breezes in with them. Can he really be the Goblin King? Indeed, does such a person actually exist?

Set in a time of tension, balanced between old superstition and new rationalism, Enlightenment and full blooded Romanticism, Winter and Spring, this is really Liesl's story. Liesl will sacrifice herself for her brother's ambition, her family's need, her sister's safety - but what will become of her? What about her inner desires, her need for love?

It's a beautifully written book, dark, sensual and cryptic, as Liesl sets out for the Underworld to save her sister - from what exactly? Even as she goes, she's not sure. Once there, she's herself at the mercy of the quicksilver King and his mob of a Court: beguiled by tales of a sacrifice even greater that the one she expected, made to feel a duty that was never hers. There are echoes of ancient myth, of Orpheus and Eurydice or Tammuz and Ishtar, with the rhythm of the story driven by the ebb and flow of the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King.

Jae-Jones has produced a masterful and beguiling story which manages to be both a tale of Liesl's coming of age and of her uncovering truths about her family and the world around her. Myths and misconceptions are case aside, but will they be replaced with others, more beguiling and addictive? Is it better to live with ugly truths or beautiful lies?

I simply loved this book. You never know where you are with it: it's fantasy but also romance, myth and truth. And deeply musical, every page infused with the composition, creation and impact of music. Like those ripe and luscious fruits, one bite will set the reader on the path through the winter woods, into the underground, the barrow rooms, the subterranean lake - to return, if at all, forever changed.

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