Shadowsong, by S. Jae-Jones

I was lukewarm to S. Jae-Jones’ Wintersong on my first reading, but since returning to it a few years back, it haunted me in a way it had not before. Maybe the reason I could not understand it the first time was that my life experience did not quite match up with it yet.

Wintersong and its sequel Shadowsong show a young German woman named Liesl coming to grips with a mental madness that she wants to suppress for the sake of her family, but she also longs to express. If Wintersong was about Liesl finally finding a place where she felt seen and heard, then Shadowsong is about coming to grips with the madness lingering from a lifetime of suppression, loneliness, and blocked passion.

At last, Liesl has found the space to compose the music she always wanted to write. Plus, her musical prodigy brother, Josef, is finally living his own dream of playing violin for esteemed audiences. But one day, Liesl receives an invitation to play her music for a special benefactor alongside Josef. Liesl travels to Vienna, but she quickly gets caught up in a tangled web of secrets and old magic. Liesl will finally have to confront her own growing madness, and this time, it might save the world from a dark ending…

This book came to me at the best possible time. Liesl finds herself blocked from writing music and life has her so weighed down that she cannot find the inspiration needed to finish her piece. As time goes on, I myself feel that same awful heaviness: wanting to find the space to create, but the exhaustion of just living life leaves me little to no room to do so. And even when I want to create, I cannot make anything I like. And so it becomes this boiling ball of unexpressed creativity that manifests as frustration, anger, anxiety, and a myriad of other feelings.

It’s been a long time since a character’s emotional state has so closely matched my own. Liesl knows she has duties she must perform and what person she must be to survive, and she chafes against those duties and expectations. Despite being eighteen, she does not have much freedom and people treat her like a child when all she really wants is a confidante to talk to about her time with the Goblin King.

Liesl’s time Underground as the Goblin Queen is a secret she can only tell so many people about, and she greatly misses the austere young man she left behind. The moments she spends missing her life Underground feel like when you miss a beautiful nighttime dream: you don’t know if you will ever get that dream back, but you cannot help longing for it anyway.

This book’s tension arises from Liesl slowly shedding the person that society wants her to be and becoming again who she is: a young woman touched by goblin magic and who loves the Goblin King. But she cannot really do that until she sheds her inhibitions and tries to compose again.

Except she cannot.

We learn eventually why Liesl is unable to compose, and while it is not surprisingly fantastic, the parallels to artist’s block are still very real and frustrating.

S. Jae-Jones’ writing does a stellar job of bringing Liesl’s troubled mind to life. She plays around with language a lot, repeating just the right words for emphasis and sprinkling alliteration here and there. The writing is indeed playful, almost like the goblins that Liesl used to rule, but it feels cruelly dark.

Of course, this is not just Liesl’s story. We get a look into how Josef is adjusting to his new life, and his melancholy is darkly relatable. Josef does not enjoy playing for audiences as everyone expects him to. Everyone expects so much from his gift that they fail to see how Josef measures his own success as a violinist. He would rather play for himself or for his loved ones than for an entire adoring audience. And yet, everyone thinks the only success he can find is through perfection and widespread fame. No one takes the time to understand Josef, and even he begins to lose touch with his music after the weight of expectation becomes too much to bear.

How he becomes emotionally and physically distant from even his loved ones kind of hurt with how real it felt. Although their intentions for him were good, they still hurt him, and he becomes caught in that place where he wants to love them but cannot help hating them too. It’s a strange feeling to explain, but I felt it for Josef.

I might have teared up sometimes because I felt these characters’ emptiness and frustration so deeply. There is a scene where Liesl sees the Goblin King in a broken mirror and she gives in to her longing for him. I had to make sure to breathe after that scene was over because I wanted the two to connect and Liesl’s desperation is so palpable.

S. Jae-Jones wrote in an author’s note that Liesl is supposed to be bipolar, but I think Liesl’s mental state speaks to a wider audience than that. Anyone who has had long-term artist’s block or chafes against the status quo for many years can relate to Liesl or Josef. Freedom to be ourselves entire, as Liesl wants to be Liesl, entire, is the greatest thing we can hope for, and it hurts when it seems to get farther and farther away. We want to meet our loved ones’ expectations of us, but we sometimes sacrifice our own sense of self for that, and that can be quite a lonely, soul-crushing experience. Even if you try to live your life in the meantime, not having the space to be yourself can eventually and literally drive you mad.

I wish I could better articulate my feelings about this book, but it is an ethereal, gut-wrenching experience. However melancholy this book is, it definitely comes recommended, especially for those feeling frustrated, empty, and lonely, without the space to be themselves and without the space to be free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s