Review: Wintersong

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

**Thank you so much to St. Martin’s Press for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purposes of review**


Well I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

I’ll admit it: I went into this book with little expectations. It sounds terrible, but I never meant in a way that implied a potential lack of quality. I went into this book joking that, after reading its premise, as long as it gave me a sexy Goblin King upon whom I could project the image and persona of David Bowie’s Jareth from Labyrinth, then I would probably enjoy it no matter what.

And, at first, I would say that’s certainly what this book did. Der Erlkönig is mysterious and alluring in the way goblins and the fae appear in many a tale. While I am certainly no expert in the field of goblin lore, what bits I saw, I recognised with ease. But what was even more exciting was recognizing the Classical allusions this book drew — namely, that it evoked the myth of Hades and Persephone with a dash of Orpheus.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

The story of Hades and Persephone is one that appears in many a fictional work — Beauty & the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, V for Vendetta to name a few that are well-known — but it’s one that I think is fiendishly hard to do well. You see, I find that many a creator doesn’t know quite how to handle their Persephone. She is often too mewling, too timid, and she never quite ascends to being the equal of her Hades. That was the beauty of the myth: for all of its many issues involving the lack of consent and such in the early tellings (c.f. Hesiod’s Theogony), Persephone always ascends to the side of her husband as his equal.

The Ancient Greeks feared Persephone just as much as they did Hades, in some respects even more sore. She was the Queen of the Underworld while also a goddess of the spring; she is both life and death, and her movement between the world of the living and the Underworld controls the entire cycle.

So when I see that this story become about a girl — a young woman, really, who chooses to give herself up to the Goblin King, the one who is king of the Underground, for the purposes of playing with the laws of spring and winter, the very thing that controls harvests that mean life or death for humanity, it is no longer just the fluffy paranormal romance story story of a sexy Goblin King and some female protagonist I can (usually) forget with relative ease. This becomes a story of growth, of power and sacrifice, and, yes, of love as well. If you’re any kind of scholar or fan of Hades/Persephone myth, I think there are many things you are sure to enjoy seeing in this tale.

Baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

But, as I mentioned before, there is a dash of Orpheus, and I’d wager it’s little coincidence that this myth is directly referenced within the novel. Because, you see, there are not two main characters; there are three. Elisabeth, The Goblin King, and the music.

I didn’t know this book would be as much about music as it would be about the triumph of living and knowing thyself. But S. Jae-Jones’ poetic prose captures the ecstasy of music in its pages. It captures the qual parts joy and pain — that silent scream into the void we offer up from the depths of our soul when we listen to music that moves us, when we are inspired. When we dare, too, to bare our own souls to the world and create. It captures both the wild abandon and the fragile tenderness.

Maybe there’s a God above
All I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

And in its final chapters, this haunting, beautiful book gripped its heart in its talons and wrung every bit of pain and joy from it so that I was feeling everything, all at once. It sunk its claws into my soul and I will admit that I was having a hard time holding back tears. Something about this book and the way that S. Jae-Jones wove together myth and music and magic struck a chord deep within me, and I got so much more out of this book than I ever expected to.

I’m sure there are people who will love to point out all the flaws that exist in this novel, and I am the first to admit that it is not perfect. It is, as those lyrics suggest, a “broken hallelujah” that rings truer in its imperfections.

*nota bene: I would not, normally, frame a review around song lyrics — let alone song lyrics that do not even appear within the novel itself. But something about this novel had me repeating these lyrics in my head over and over while reading. And while I would have loved to have peppered this review with a plethora of quotes from the novel, that’s just too many spoilers, I think, and the words within this book deserve to be a private moment experienced by the reader.

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