Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

I have nothing good to say about this book. I do not understand how it can possibly be a bestseller.

I’m not the only one who feels like it’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Here’s an excerpt from a PW review of Wintersong that encapsulates my objections succinctly:

“The plot meanders, the stakes are ill-defined, and the characters lack depth and verisimilitude.”

If you think I’m cherry picking and only this one snooty publishing gatekeeper disliked it, yes, I am cherry picking—but here are some notes from an editor and book blogger who was similarly underwhelmed.

If you want to know more about why I didn’t like Wintersong, dive in to the rant below.

Why I Didn’t Like Wintersong

Novels have character, setting, plot, style, and theme. I tend to focus on plot, but I’m sensitive to the other elements as well. How does Wintersong measure up?

Elisabeth is as good-hearted and deserving as Cinderella—that is, when she’s not pitying herself for being plain and self-effacing. She wants a guy to want her like guys want her flirty sister, only in a more genuine way, naturally. She also wants—in a time when it would have been unthinkable—to become a famous composer. She also wants to remain loyal to her family members, especially her brother and sister. It’s not clear which of her goals is most important.

A small town by the woods. Germany. Europe. As long as Elisabeth remains above ground, we are hit over the head with details that feel like German Fairytale Window Dressing (TM). Beer! Bread! Sausages! Familiar names with slightly strange spellings! A mysterious grove! A humble but cozy inn! A red cloak!

The tension was all wrong. I wasn’t sure which events in the story mattered. The turning points weren’t where they were supposed to be, and didn’t happen for understandable reasons of character growth. There’s no villain: the annoyingly stubborn yet irresolute protagonist is her own worst enemy.

Musical jargon is shoehorned in everywhere. Poor word choice and syntax frequently pulled my attention away from the story. Worst of all, the clueless main character’s narration grates on the nerves.

“Someday my prince—uh, king—will come, and he’ll love me for myself, and I’ll save my family and the world, and I’ll become immortal either through my music or by never dying or both.” Romance and fantasy novels all sound silly if you boil them down to one sentence, but in this case, poor execution destroys suspension of disbelief and betrays goodwill.

Miscellaneous Quibbles

Here’s a selection of the logical mistakes, contradictions, and plot holes that made me stop and scratch my head.

What does the flute have to do with anything? It isn’t the instrument Elisabeth knows best, but it is conveniently portable. The goblin king slips her this valuable gift, and it crops up again, but it doesn’t fit the character or the story.

Why does Elisabeth say the family is “plagued by poverty”? The family owns an inn, and several  musical instruments, has some education (in music of all things), and always seems to have enough food in spite of the father’s compulsive drinking.

Why would Hans marry the elder sister? He doesn’t particularly like her, and he could support the same family by marrying the younger one, whom he does like.

Is Hans really a womanizer? I thought we liked Hans. He seemed like the prototypical guy next door, right up until he seemed like the prototypical male chauvinist. In particular, why is he a womanizer in the alternate reality, which is supposed to be a pleasant fiction for Elisabeth?

Whatever happened to that alternate reality? Was it like a parallel universe, or a dream only of Elisabeth’s, or of everyone else’s, or did the magic actually change the world? Did the magic change things back? The nature of people’s illusions and delusions was not clear.

What are we supposed to think of the musician who takes Josef as his apprentice? Is he a dangerous jerk, or the teacher that Josef needs to progress in his career, or a good guy but just a bad match for Josef? It’s ambiguous, and not in a meaningful way.

Why doesn’t Elisabeth try to escape her barrow through the chimney? Children’s literature is rife with capacious fireplaces. Why isn’t the one in Wintersong considered a possible exit? I wouldn’t have minded nearly as much if the book had said that the chimney, although it let in some fresh air, was too small for Elisabeth to climb into, but there was no such lampshade.

Why is Josef’s nickname is Sepperl? It makes him sound like two different people. I’m not sure I understand the relationship between the two names… maybe the “sef” at the end of “Josef” becomes “sep” and then a diminutive ending gets added?

What’s up with Josef? Apparently, when Elisabeth wished for her brother to survive a mortal childhood illness, the goblins replaced him. Does he know he’s not human? He vaguely talks about having made some kind of deal with the devil. What does he mean?

Why doesn’t Elisabeth tell Josef to come back home? Supposedly changelings cannot survive for long if they are away from the magic forest. Elisabeth reaches the surface again towards the end of the story—which is really the middle, since this book has exactly one sequel—but she never warns Josef he’s in danger of fading into nothing.

How does wishing work? Which wishes are selfless and which are selfish? Which are good and bad? And what are the consequences of wishes? They come true? You get nosebleeds? Humans are secretly replaced with changelings? It depends!

FYI, Wintersong is nothing like Labyrinth!

Wintersong, a supposed “retelling” of a 1986 fantasy adventure movie, is more like the myth of Persephone. The stakes (at one point) seem to be the springtime renewal of the earth, which requires personal sacrifice.

Wintersong is also somewhat like Thumbelina. A while back, I watched two film versions: the somewhat awful Faerietale Theatre Thumbelina and the quite awful 1994 cartoon Thumbelina. In Wintersong as in Thumbelina, a hapless young woman is nearly forced to marry an underground creature and renounce the world of sunlight and seasons.

In both Labyrinth and Wintersong, there is a musical goblin king who snatches a sibling from the heroine, lures her to his realm, and traps her there.

In Labyrinth, the heroine’s baby brother is snatched, the snatcher (played by David Bowie) is unambiguously, mustache-twirlingly evil, and one of his minions turns out to be friendly and courageous. The point of the story is that the heroine learns valuable lessons about kindness and picks up necessary critical thinking skills.

In Wintersong, there are two siblings, the brother isn’t the one who gets snatched, the snatching isn’t the direct result of a wish made by the heroine, and the goblin king is a victim rather than a villain. The point of the story seems to be to gratify the heroine’s desire to sleep with the goblin king, a former human uncomfortable with his immortality. I was reminded of Bella’s relationship with the similarly post-human sparkly vampire, Edward, in Twilight. (Twilight was far better than Wintersong.)

Marketing Wintersong as a retelling of Labyrinth was an egregious bait-and-switch ploy—but a perversely successful one, apparently.

When and Why I Read Wintersong

I am reading this for the Middle Grade / Young Adult Fiction Book Club. It is marketed as a retelling of the 1986 movie Labyrinth.

Genre: young adult fantasy / romance
Date started / date finished: 13-Jun-19 to 17-Jun-19
Length: 448 pages
Originally published in: 2017
Amazon link: Wintersong