The Horror Honeys: The Goblin King Returns in S. Jae-Jones's 'Wintersong'

The Goblin King Returns in S. Jae-Jones's 'Wintersong'

A Hardcover Honey Review with Laurel

Photos credit of their individual distributors
Wintersong (2017)

If you are among the many who were left reeling after David Bowie's passing, chances are, you re-watched the movie Labyrinth (1986).

This children's classic directed by Jim Henson follows the highly imaginative Sara (Jennifer Connelly), uneasy about the responsibility and lack of parental attention that comes with having a new baby brother. She'd much rather read her book of fairy tales and act out her favorite scenes by the park. One day, she wishes the baby away, and lo and behold, Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie at his resplendent best), appears to grant her wish. Sara has thirteen hours to navigate the Goblin realm's underground labyrinth and save her brother. Muppet-like hijinks and catchy tunes ensue. It's a mixed bag as cult classics go, still lovable if you watch it as an adult, but with more than a few seams showing. Bowie is, of course, the most memorable and fabulous part of it.

In the end, Jareth concedes that Sara has won, and allows her to return to her world. But first he makes her a beguiling offer: "Just let me rule you. Worship me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave." We know how the story is supposed to end, with Sara letting go of childhood trinkets (sort of), rescuing her baby brother, and going home. But what if Sara took Jareth's offer? What if she decided to stay in the labyrinth and rule it as his Queen?

That's the premise behind S. Jae-Jones' Wintersong. In this teen novel, the main character is Elisabeth, or "Liesl," and the Goblin King is a nameless figure from her childhood who she thought was an imaginary friend. Liesl's job is to rescue not her brother, but her sister, from the Goblin King, in exchange for staying there as his bride.

Say yes, Sara. You know you want to.
The story is also heavily influenced by 19th-century poet Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," a frightening, sensual tale about the bewitching power of dishonest men. From a harrowing scene in an open market, to a gruesome ball in which Liesl's sister doesn't seem to notice she's being eaten alive, Jae-Jones injects a fantastic amount of equal parts dread and desire into her prose.

The Goblin King in Wintersong is the spitting image of actual David Bowie right down to the heterochromia. He's clever, strange, cruel, beautiful, and sincerely enamored of Liesl to the point where it is easy to hope they will end up together. However, this fable diverges from the fanfic-y wish-fulfillment pretense, instead, showing the reader just what eternity with a monstrous hedonist might look like. In this case, that is definitely not a place you want to be, once the sparkle wears off.

It feels pat to call this a "cautionary tale." It is a story about the dangers of temptation, but it's infinitely more complicated than a moralizing fairy tale. Liesl's temptation isn't hedonism or lust, but the freedom to express her unfiltered creative self. All her life, she's been overshadowed by a brother gifted with preternatural musical ability, and a sister who is a stunning beauty. Everyone ignores her and expects her to take care of the menial tasks at home. Only the Goblin King knows about her secret ambition as a composer, and only he makes an effort to foster that talent into something wild and precious.

If you are wondering... yes; this scene is in the book.
There's a touch of possessive jealousy in Liesl's attitude when her sister gets captured as well. On one level, yes, she is concerned for her sister's safety. But more than that, she sees that incident as one more example of her sister getting attention from someone Liesl wishes would notice her instead. This underworld of monsters and magic is supposed to belong to her, and her sister finding her way there, however harmlessly, is one violation too many.

This book does drag a bit in the middle. It's difficult to say whether that's intentional on the author's part, to reflect the unfulfilling monotony of being trapped in an eternal darkness with no one to talk to, or if it just got bloated and meandering the way the second act of novels often do. Either way, the most compelling parts are the "game" Liesl has to play to save her sister, and later her escape from the underworld with all of Goblindom after her.

The second book, Shadowsong, comes out later this year. If it's anywhere near as tantalizing as the first, it's well worth putting on your reading list.