I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes attend comic conventions. So I thought, in order to celebrate my third year attending Indiana Comic Con, I would review a book that hints at one of my cosplays for this year’s convention–one of my most ambitious cosplay projects to date, I’ll add.
Wintersong is not a new read for me. I was indifferent to it after my first read-through in 2017, shortly after its bestselling debut, but because of its heavy connections and comparisons to Jim Henson’s 1986 cult classic Labyrinth (okay, I’ll fess up—I’ll be cosplaying as Sarah in her iconic white ballgown), I decided to see if time had been kinder to it.
18-year-old Liesl is a peasant girl in olden Germany, toiling endlessly to maintain her family’s inn, and promote the otherworldly musical talent of Josef, her younger brother. All her life, though, she has been told tales of the beautiful and enigmatic Goblin King, who steals a bride every so often to make the seasons turn. So one day, when her younger sister, Käthe, is taken Underground, Liesl makes a perilous journey into the goblin city to save her. But what she finds there turns out to be more dream than nightmare, and Liesl will have to sacrifice more than her life if she wants to appease the conflicted man who rules the goblins…
At first glance, the similarities between the characters and certain plot points of this book and Labyrinth were overwhelming, to the point that I passed it off as pretty fan fiction. But I could not resist the lure of a story featuring an ordinary person traveling to a strange magical place to rescue a family member, so I dove right in. And author S. Jae-Jones imbues this story with enough originality that Liesl is not Sarah, nor is the Goblin King Jareth. There are profound human elements to both these characters that stand against a melancholy plot that Jim Henson’s goblin story did not have. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a strong, sensual flavor similar to Labyrinth, but the strength of this fairy tale lies not in creative puppetry, but in Liesl’s strong internal conflict.
The truth is that Liesl is a gifted composer, but her talents cannot flourish because one, she is a woman doomed to servitude, and two, Josef is the more talented violinist, so he gets all the attention. Becoming queen of the goblins gives her a chance to let her talents grow. But Liesl cannot find it in her to release the music buried within her, not even when she discovers how the Goblin King thrives on music as well.
What’s refreshing about Liesl’s relationship to the Goblin King is that he treats her like a woman. He doesn’t play games with her unless she’s going to play with him, and Liesl brings his walls down by refusing to concede to him when he goads her. They only get what they truly want—Liesl, connection to her music, and the Goblin King, the smallest semblance of his former self—by learning to trust each other entirely.
There is a Beauty and the Beast-esque element to the Goblin King, in that regard. He is part of a long line of unfortunate men who sold their souls to cheat death, and the price was forgetting his former self. The moments when that self comes out are painfully beautiful. You also never learn the Goblin King’s name, which adds to the melancholy of this poor soul never being rescued.
This is a slow-burning story, with lots of description and internal monologue, but the sensual mystery of the Goblin King, and the passion and sadness surrounding Liesl’s music are compelling. It sometimes comes dangerously close to copying Labyrinth, but again, the powerful atmosphere and dimensional characters raise it high above glorified fan fiction.