Review: “Shadowsong” by S. Jae-Jones

Shadowsong by S. Jae-Jones

5 stars out of 5
**A huge shout-out to Serena at Wednesday Books for sending me an ARC of this novel for the purpose of review**

For the monstrous, and those who love us.

I am slain.

Do you guys ever read books that are so, so good on an emotional level that you finish them and just have nothing left? Nothing. I am a husk, I have been officially drained and wrung out and felt every feeling under the sun.

And this started with the Author’s Note — no, really. The Author’s Note was the point where this feels train left the station. It’s rare, I think, to have an Author’s Note at the start of a book as opposed to its end, and this is one that is mandatory reading. S. Jae-Jones lays herself bare to the reader in a way that is both insightful and profound, prepping the reader for the madness-filled journey on which they are about to embark.

“Madness is not a gift,” I said angrily.
“Nor is it a curse,” the Count returned gently. “Madness simply is.”

This is a book all about madness. Characters flirting with madness, descending into madness, fighting madness, embracing madness, accepting madness.

What is madness?

As S. Jae-Jones says in her Author’s Note: “Madness is a strange word,” and, truly, it is. Madness can be destructive, transcendent, beautiful in a terrible sense, ugly in the realest sense, and a terribly painful truth. The madness of this novel and of its characters is the madness of both mental illness and a self-discovery, self-realization, and self-actualization.

”Who are you?” Josef asked, but his reflection’s mouth did not move in time with his.
I am you, the other Josef replied.
“And who am I?” he whispered.
The reflection only smiled

Sokrates once wrote gnothi seauton: know thyself. But to know oneself and to accept oneself are not the same thing, and I think that for many, the greater struggle is not so much to know but accept oneself. That is the journey Liesl must embark upon in Shadowsong.

If Wintersong was the discovering of herself, then Shadowsongis Liesl’s great reckoning with and eventual acceptance of herself. And that includes every beautiful and terrible and wonderful and ugly thing about herself. It is a difficult journey, it is a heartwrenching journey, and at the end of it all, it is a cathartic journey.

Yet it is not Liesl alone who must make this journey; so too must Josef and Der Erlkonig, the two other most central figures in this duology. And while Liesl is undoubtedly our protagonist, both Josef and The Goblin King must endure reckonings of their own as a result of the events in Wintersong.

S. Jae-Jones uses an “interlude” structure to weave the backstory of The Goblin King into the present-day narrative almost like a strange fairy tale — how appropriate, given the strange and otherworldly nature of the current Der Erlkonig. And yet within that interlude structure, as well as within the primary narrative, it is the small shreds of humanity to which The Goblin King clings that we, too, as an audience latch onto; those scraps of “sanity” that fight against the “madness”, the person we want The Goblin King to be that battles with the Der Erlkonig we fear he shall ultimately become.

The stakes are high, both on a macrocosmic and a microcosmic scale, with The Wild Hunt appearing like some kind of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to “right” the balance of the universe after Liesl and The Goblin King broke the “old laws” and, thus, spelled doom for not only themselves, but the rest of mankind. They ride through the night taking souls, all the while Der Erlkonig battles with the monstrous within him that seeks to consume every part of his body and soul the more he must ride with The Wild Hunt. It is only his connection to Liesl, and to the music she creates that helps keep that little flicker of humanity alight within him; her music acts as a bridge not only between the world of the Underground and the Living, but also as a bridge between the “human” and the “monster.” It’s dark and thrilling and fantastic.

As for Josef, the reckoning that comes for him is visceral and heartbreaking. Seemingly tangential for much of Wintersong, he truly takes center stage beside his sister as the deuteragonist, just as, honestly, he should be. The connection shared between Liesl and Josef — one of familial love and of music — has frayed in their time apart and in Liesl’s keeping of secrets from Josef. The erosion and repairing of this relationship drives Liesl and Josef for much of the story, but it in no way feels like a forced angst; given the events and revelations of Wintersong, and the hard truths to which both of these characters must own up, the fracture within their bond is understandable.

It is also compelling. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for sibling dynamics, but I was fully invested in the dynamic between Liesl and Josef. I hoped for nothing more than them being able to repair the damage done to their relationship, and to both find some form of happiness — despite knowing that, given S. Jae-Jones’ Author’s Note as well as the ending of Wintersong, this story was likely to come to a bittersweet end.

As for the music? Music remains, ever still, its own character within this narrative. If Philip Pullman used daemons as a manifestation of people’s souls, then so is music oftentimes used interchangeably with the souls of Liesl, The Goblin King, and Josef. It is music through which they can speak to each other; speak ugly truths and pretty lies, their darkest fears and greatest joys, and, ultimately, their love for one another. Love, in all shapes and forms, is the most powerful emotion in this novel, but you can bet your ass it’s not always a happy emotion.

As soon as you submit
Surrender flesh and bone,
That love takes on a life much bigger than your own.
It uses you at whim and drives you to despair.
And forces you to feel more joy than you can bear.
Love gives you pleasure,
And love brings you pain!
And yet, when both are gone,
Love will still remain.

Say what you want about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies (it’s got problems), the lyrics to its titular aria are pretty perfectly applied here. In fact, one could argue the lyrics wonderfully encapsulate the emotional core of the “love stories” that appear within Shadowsong. Whether it be a familial love or a romantic love, these characters feel all of its ecstasies and passions — two words with both positive and negative connotations.

I mentioned in my review of Wintersong that both the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as of Hades and Persephone, played a big role in the narrative, and Shadowsong continues that, banking particularly on the latter myth. In fact, the story of Persephone, and her transition from a bright spring goddess to the darker Queen of the Underworld, is paid particular attention directly within the narrative. It sets up what is the final evolution and Liesl’s character: the transition from light to dark has begun, now she must embrace the dark as a part of her, even if to the outside world, or even to oneself, it is “ugly” or “monstrous.”

You are the monster I claim, mein Herr.
Perhaps I loved the monstrous because I was a monster. Josef, the Goblin King, and me. We were grotesques in the world above, too different, too odd, too talented, too much. We were all too much.

If you haven’t guessed: I loved this book. I loved this dark journey through the psyches of our three primary players. I loved the interweaving of mythology and folklore with real, raw human emotion. I loved that, when I finished this book, I just sat there staring at the page, breathing in and out, feeling as though I’d been put through the ringer.

I know there are those who may not enjoy this series the way that I do, but something about it speaks to me on a very deep, visceral level. Something about these characters and their descents into their own versions of madness grip me in a way that few novels manage to.

And for that, I tip my hat to S. Jae-Jones for not only writing beautifully, but writing a beautiful story within that lush prose that grips my heart in its talons and refuses to let it go.

Brava, maestra. Brava.

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