Review: “Sailing to Sarantium”, by Guy Gavriel Kay

First 41 pages: “Not sure I can get through this…”  Next 200-or-so pages:   “Hmmmmmm…” Strokes chin, turns page.  Last 100 pages:  Forgets to go to the bathroom, checks library page to see if sequel “Lord of Emperors” is available.

“Sailing to Sarantium” is a cynical, melancholy, darkly funny, sometimes detached and sometimes very emotional story about a wide range of people caught up in political and personal struggles against the backdrop of the most powerful empire on the earth.  An earth that’s almost like ours except it has two moons instead of one.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a fairly brilliant man.  Realizing that creating a secondary world of epic scope must borrow very heavily from  real history and geography to be believable, he said “screw it” to the cornball attempts of so many at high fantasy and essentially created his own genre.  In a way, the closest fantasy writer I could compare him to is Tolkien.  It so happens that Kay helped compile “The Simarillion”.  Coincidence?  Unlikely.

Basically, Sarantium is such a thinly disguised version of Byzantium aka Constantinople that Kay doesn’t even try to hide it.  That’s not the point.  Instead of trying to be über original and create a world that no one will recognize, Kay embraces a radical adaptation of real history that’s so accurate it’s almost alternate history.   Except he adds in the supernatural, which of course is what we love about fantasy to begin with.

It does get a bit pedantic at times (C’mon, man, enough with the witty little historical anecdotes that you are obviously copying from obscure ancient philosophers) but the detail to the culture and world creation is astounding.  This really is a story for the “mileu” oriented reader.  The plot is a bit wobbly, the chronology and narration are all over the place, and the characters aren’t the most lovable and huggable and memorable of all time but that’s not the point!   If you love and appreciate a secondary world that is actually believable and transporting, this is one of the best I have read in recent memory.   The reason I gave four stars instead of five is because, well, as much as I love “mileu” stories I do like a little balance.   I like a little more closure and development with characters to feel satisfied.  That said, the characters in “Sailing to Sarantium” are definitely believable.

Our protagonist is the grumpy, jaded (and secretly romantic and brokenhearted) Caius Crispin, an artisan living in the Italian peninsula the Batiaran peninsula, in the capital of  Ravenna  Varena, working as a mosaicist.  Not unlike Bilbo Baggins, Crispin is dead-set against leaving home and having any adventures, but a summons from the Emperor of Sarantium himself sends Crispin packing.  Oh, and he’s carrying with him a message from a young and vulnerable queen who is surrounded by enemies on all fronts.  Her last hope is Crispin and the Emperor of Sarantium himself.

Along the way Crispin rescues a slave girl from a brutal situation, and together with her and his loyal manservant he descends into the Aldwood, a forest of mythic scale, there to have an encounter with a creature from the half-world that will leave him both shaken and thoughtful as he makes his way to Sarantium, the City of Cities, to create a mosaic design for the dome of the world’s biggest building.  Crispin soon realizes there is an analogy between the mosaic tiles he is adept at fitting and putting together, and the court games and intrigue “puzzle pieces” that he is not quite so adept at putting together.  In fact Crispin, understandably, resents being at the heart of the games of thrones, er, courts.

 “It shames a man to be seen as a piece in a game.”

“But you are, you foolish man.  Of course you are.  Pride has nothing to do with it.  Everyone at this court is proud, everyone a piece in a game.  In many way games at once – some of murder and some of desire – though there is only one game in that matters, in the end, and all the others are a part of it.”

That would be Crispin talking with Styliane Daleina, a mistress of court and intrigue who could be forgiven for sounding like Cirsei Lannister.

The politics, however, are not the end-all, here.  There is death and the life and world after and the point of it all.  There is friendship and even love, in its brief and fragmented moments.  There’s a lot of darkness but there’s hope too, and that’s why this is a book I can see myself returning to.

But at the end of the day, it’s the vivid depiction of a world from a bygone era that’s just the perfect ratio of “similar” and “different” that sells this book.  If you’re not into re-imagined versions of old empires and detail and minutiae in a story that make them believable, this might not be your book.  But if you are looking to be completely immersed in a new world – including the most awesome and heart-pounding Hippodrome chariot race scene ever – even if you’re not always sure where it’s going or what’s coming next, then put “Sailing to Sarantium” on your list.

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Review: “And I Darken,” by Kiersten White

 

When I finished this book I had to toggle my head a few times. Yeah, it’s one of those books – the kind that transport you back in time, to another world and another reality where bathroom breaks and mealtimes sort of don’t matter.   Your mouth goes dry at some point but your fingers are still able to turn the pages.

 

If only And I Darken was as awesome as that sounds.

 

OK, to be fair: there are awesome things about Darken. As I said, it does transport you. It’s seamlessly written – for the most part.   The setting gets 5 stars: it’s a daring reimagining of both 15th century Romania and the Ottoman Empire on the brink of the collapse of Constantinople (the history nerd in me rejoices). And get this: the three main characters are from real history. Almost.

 

In real life, Vlad the Impaler – so notorious he later inspired the Dracula myth – and his brother Radu became political prisoners of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad II. Murad’s son, Mehmed, would rise to become the sultan destined to topple Byzantium. Mehmed also knew Vlad and Radu personally. Darken is an alternate history that explores the relationship between Vlad, Radu and Mehmed. Basically.

 

Oh, and in Darken, Vlad is a she – the princess Lada, to be exact.   And Lada, just like her real-life counterpart Vlad the Impaler is, well, brutal.

 

So basically, the premise is totally rad.  At the onset I was like this:

 

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Lada is the ultimate anti-heroine. She’s born a girl, much to her father’s disappointment, but the gods have been merciful enough to make her both ugly and determined to succeed in life. Not as in spunky, or scrappy….think more along the lines of cunning and violent.   Scary as $hit. She bites people.   She beats up everyone within her size and age range. When she sees a jerky kid fall into a hole in the ice she doesn’t help him out.   She does this stuff not because she’s creepy and evil, but because she wants to survive.

 

Lada is desperate for her harsh father’s approval in a world that’s dominated by men.

 

It was not that she feared punishment for her actions. What she feared was that her father would find out how the Janissaries viewed her and realize they were right. That she was a girl. That she was worth less than the castle dogs until the day she could be married off. She had to be the smartest, constantly surprising and delighting him. She was terrified that the day she stopped amusing him would be the day he remembered he had no use for a daughter.

 

Luckily for Lada, Vlad Dracul does approve of his monstrous daughter. On the other hand, he’s not so fond of his son, Radu.

 

Radu is about as different from Lada as chocolate milk is from vinegar. While Lada doesn’t give two whoops for anyone but herself, Radu is sensitive and thoughtful.   Lada uses her playmates as punching bags while Radu rescues spiders from getting squished.   Radu is as pure and good-looking as Lada is dirty and unattractive. But perhaps the biggest difference is that Radu is desperate for his sister’s love and approval while Lada is desperate for no one’s, except her father’s. And after her father betrays both her and Radu, Lada no longer even trusts or cares about him.

 

Vlad Dracul fails in his political designs and sends both Lada and Radu to the Ottoman Empire, to the city of Edirne to be “educated.”   What this really means is that they are political prisoners of the sultan and their futures are entirely in his hands.

 

Lada and Radu are forced to watch tortures and executions to understand the might and power of their captor. Radu makes peace with his new home in Edirne and is drawn to the mystical new culture as well as the religion of Islam. Lada, on the other hand, feeds herself with un-abating hatred for the Ottomans and vows to one day rise to enough power to return to her home in Wallachia and kick them out for once and for all.

 

Then Lada and Radu meet Mehmed.

 

Mehmed is the third and least popular son of the sultan. He’s destined to rise through the ranks – partly thanks to his ambitious mother – but when Lada and Radu meet him, he’s just a lonely and kind of spoiled kid. So of course, Lada, Radu and Mehmed become friends. Mehmed takes a shine to Lada, but she’s a bit wary given that he’s the heir to the throne of her sworn enemy. Politics rears its ugly head and, to quote the appropriately melodramatic end of the dust jacket summary, “they will form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.”

 

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The problem, poetically enough, lies with the same factor that makes this book awesome: the drama of it all. It’s kinda like when you’re cooking with nutmeg: nutmeg is delicious, man, and you need it, but you don’t want to overdo it. There’s a fine line between “just a few cranks,” and, “Oh crap, that’s too much.”   In the case of Darken, the drama goes a bit overboard into the range of “cheesy.” (In fact, maybe Parmesan cheese would’ve been a better cooking analogy).

 

As the dust jacket ominously informs us, Lada, Radu and Mehmed form a “toxic triangle.” Not just a political triangle – a love triangle. First, let me say that this aspect is another part of what makes Darken an interesting book, in the “Ohh snap!” kind of way.

 

Fair Radu finds that he, well, would rather kiss boys than girls. This is not exactly convenient when you’re living in Ottoman Empire times. Radu realizes his feelings for Mehmed are more than friendship, while Mehmed is hung up on Lada – and of course, that biatch doesn’t seem to be capable of having feelings for anyone…or is she falling for Mehmed?

 

It’s a fittingly tragic triangle in that all three characters are held back by some impregnable obstacle. For Radu, it’s his same-sex attraction. For Lada, it’s risking her scant power by being vulnerable – by being a woman. For Mehmed, it’s his endless duties and obligations that get in the way.   All three of them are destined to be held back from what they want most.

 

That’s the good part. The not-so-part is the way it gets to be cheesy, as I mentioned. Cheesy writing, anyway. Like this:

Mehmed dead.   Mehmed in love. Mehmed forgetting she existed. Everyone forgetting she existed. Continuing to exist in a world that cared not one whit whether or not she did. Continuing to exist in a world where she would never be kissed again.

Or this:

Radu put a hand over his chest, feeling the beat of his life beneath it. The pulse that thrummed for so long to the name of Mehmed. “I think my heart is the problem.”

Or this:

Radu buried his face in his blanket, heart beating to the sorrow and joy of Mehmed, Mehmed, Mehmed.

 

Seriously, this heartbeat analogy thing is a bit in your face. Personal opinion of course, but I’m just as sensitive to cheese in literature as I am in the food world so my tolerance level may not be as high as yours. I just found some of the writing a bit cliché when it came to the lovey stuff. Oh hang on, here’s this as well:

Mehmed’s lips. 

Mehmed’s hands.

Mehmed’s heart.

Tangled up in Lada, not in him. Lada, who could not love someone if her life depended on it. Lada, who had taken all their father’s attention, who had preferred Bogdan over her own brother. Lada, who had abandoned Radu to beatings and lonesomeness his whole life. Lada, who was cold and vicious and loyal only to herself.

 Lada, who was not even beautiful.

 

Self pitying much? Yeah, you get the idea.   This is the part of the book that’s YA in a not-so-awesome way.

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Overall, though, And I Darken is pretty triumphant, considering the scope it’s aiming for. Historical is much harder to do that straight-up fantasy, and White gets points for her valiant attempt at this alternate history thing.   It is dark, though. Maybe not quite grimdark but it’s not exactly a romp. It’s not really funny or optimistic in any way. Sure, it’s gripping and thought provoking, but that can be exhausting after a while. Kind of like horse back riding. It’s fun and epic but you can only do it for so long before it’s like,  “I need a bath. And a massage.”

 

If I had to put it on a shelf, I’d put And I Darken on the shelf of, “I-would-definitely-read-this-once-and-maybe-but-probably-not-read-it-again-but-yeah-it’s-worth-checking-out.”

 

I’m gonna conclude by highlighting two different aspects of the book that stuck out to me as I was reading it.

 

1. The Characters

 

So my big beef lately with a lot of the YA Fantasy I’ve been reading is the characters. I thought that awesome characters were a kind of timeless, necessary ingredient for a great book, but apparently a lot of authors these days either disagree or thinks their characters are awesome but somehow forgot to write them that way.

 

Most of the characters in And I Darken are not especially awesome, with the important exception of the main two: Lada and Radu. They are both striking characters you can’t forget soon– especially Lada. The relationship between them is especially beautiful and twisted. It’s clear they love each other, yet have such different ways of feeling it and such different expectations that the effect is gut wrenching. One of the most pivotal moments in the whole novel is a scene where their tutor strikes down Radu when Lada fails to answer a question the right way. The tutor is hoping to goad Lada by targeting her brother, but to save both of them she refuses to budge.

 

She kept a pleasant smile on her [face], kept her hands loosely folded in her lap, kept control. Control was power. No one would make her lose it. And eventually, the tutor would realize that she would let him hit Radu over, and over, and over.

And only then would Radu be safe.

 

Of course, Radu does not understand what his sister is doing and so he will hold a grudge against her after that. If you’re overly logical like me, you might ask, “Hey, why can’t Lada and Radu just talk to each other and explain why they do what they do.” But it’s another world, another culture, and Lada and Radu are both broken people who don’t know how to communicate.  Yes it’s ironic and dramatic.  But it’s still gut wrenching.

 

Good characters have motivations, fears, objectives and desires that make sense. Lada and Radu have all of these in spades. It’s especially impressive to see how believable a character like Lada is, even when she overcomes impossible challenges. She’s not lovable at all yet somehow you root for her. Most of the time, anyway.

 

You can almost feel her seething resolve when she thinks in disgust about her father and decides she will be better than him:

 

A dragon did not crawl on its belly in front of its enemies, begging for their help. A dragon did not vow to rid the world of infidels, and then invite them into its home. A dragon did not flee its land in the middle of the night like a criminal.

A dragon burned everything around herself until it was purified in ash.

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Basically, Lada is a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Smaug. She’s the most believably kick-@$$ fictional person I’ve come across in a while, and I think the tragedy and the desperation in her story is a crucial part of that.

 

Radu has his own survival methods, though. Unlike his sister he learns to thrive through being influential and diplomatic. He scores heaps of friends and admirers, though in his case, it’s part of a mask he wears since he can’t trust anyone with his deepest feelings and secrets. He fights his own personal battles and is definitely sympathetic and fleshed-out, too.

 

Mehmed, however, is rather flat. White herself admitted that he was the hardest of the three characters to write, because there is already a lot of history written about him (it’s harder to let your creative energies flow when you’re writing about, say, Hitler, compared to an obscure ancient pharaoh). It’s kind of disappointing, because if Mehmed was awesome, it would probably make the difference between this book being, “Hey, it’s kind of cool,” and, “This book is a MUST read.”

 

2. Inacurracies and the Depiction of Romania vs. Ottoman Empire

 

So, objectively speaking, the history part is the biggest bone I have to pick with And I Darken. I know, I know, I said the historical setting was 5 stars, and it is. But historical accuracy fudges are not something I lightly gloss over.

 

Now, White makes it explicitly clear in her “Author’s Note,” that she did not stick to dates strictly, that she changed events around, changed Vlad to a female and obviously extrapolated and invented a ton of personal history that was extremely unlikely. It is, after all, “alternate history,” and therefore fantasy. That’s not what I’m talking about.

 

I’m talking about awkward inaccuracies, like the fact that Lada’s full name in the story is Ladislav.   “It’s the feminine version of Vlad,” according to her father, who names her after himself. The heck…? Any quick search on Google makes it clear that Ladislav is a male name, and in fact the Czech version of Vladislav.  Incidentally, “Lada,” means “chest.”   Noooot quite sure that White realized or intended that.  Maybe?

 

I know this sounds like quibbling, but the main character is supposed to be Vlad the Impaler, so it would make sense for at least the female version of the name to be accurate (Ladislova would make more sense). Unless White is making up her own nomenclature rules, too?

 

I also think it’s worth mentioning that this book has drawn the ire of multiple Romanian readers for similar details, as well as bigger issues – one of the biggest being the fact that Wallachia (olden times region in Romania) is described as a rather dark and depressing place, and we hardly spend any time there. Lada loves her homeland to no end, not because it’s so awesome, but more like because everywhere else is anathema to her. I was honestly excited to read a book that featured medieval Romania, but a good 75% of the book is in Edirne (Turkey), in the Ottoman Empire.

 

Sure, the Ottomans are Lada and Radu’s captors, but they are also sophisticated, take baths all the time, have yummier food, great educational programs, better art and architecture, more colors, prettier flowers, cooler music, a more hip religion and a sort of manifest destiny to kick the crap out of the barbaric Europeans and effete Byzantines.

 

I did appreciate that White put a lot of effort into depicting the Ottoman Empire’s positive aspects. Keep in mind that the events of this novel are still fairly early into the Empire’s chronology, long before it became the corrupt, pathetic, genocidal entity that it was on the brink of World War I.   White does a skillful job of showing how a foreign character like Radu is intoxicated with the Ottoman culture – to the point of renouncing his own.

 

If White had likewise depicted more positive aspects of medieval Romanian (Wallachian) culture, or at least showing it as having its own kind of allure, I would say the book is very even-handed in its depiction of both cultures.   But White seems to be so careful of being politically correct at times that she sort of glosses over the negative aspects of Ottoman culture (“Yeah, our women have to live in seclusion, but they’re happier than your women!”) and fails to put any plugs in for Romanian culture. Which is weird, because White apparently loves Romania and has traveled there and was inspired to write a story set there. Maybe in the sequel we’ll get more…?

 

Another thing that has P’Oed Romanian readers of Darken is the sexist portrayal of Wallachian culture. According to more than one reader on Goodreads, anyway, girls in Wallachia were not considered mostly worthless and ineligible to have political power. I can’t vouch for this myself as I’m not a history expert, but if someone who has credibility – which would include someone who belongs to that culture – calls BS then I’m inclined to take her/his word for it.

 

Let’s just say that for a novel that’s supposed to be about Romanian characters and culture, it’s a bit disappointing in that department. Which is sad, because it’s a kind of overlooked part of the world that’s basically only known worldwide for Dracula/Transylvania, and possibly that hit song from ten years ago, Dragostea Din Tei (Oh wait, that song is from Moldova. My point still stands).

 

Anyway, there’s my food for thought and grain of salt to nibble on.

 

I’ll leave you with two more cool quotes from this sometimes-fantastic-sometimes-really-frustrating novel and maybe you’ll have a feel for if this book is for you.

 

“So defend what is yours! Why must it turn to conquest?”

 

–“…If we were not pushing, fighting, claiming what is ours and challenging what is not yet ours, others would be doing it to us. It is the way of the world. You can be the aggressor, you can fight against crusaders on their own land, or you can stay at home and wait for them to come to you. And they _would_ come. They would come with fire, with disease, with swords and blood and death. Weakness is an irresistible lure.” 

 

And finally:

 

Men here either looked right past her as though she did not exist, or looked so hard that she knew they were not seeing her at all. It made her long for a weapon in her hand, for a crown instead of snarled braids, for a beard, even. For anything that would make them see her for what and who she was.

Or perhaps, looking at her and seeing nothing, they understood perfectly well who she was already.

 

This book is still gonna take another week or two to sink in.   Though one thing for sure, I don’t think I’ll ever perfectly understand Lada, and that’s part of what makes her so amazing at times.

 

 

 

Review: “Wintersong,” by S. Jae-Jones

What’re you supposed to do when you find out a girl woman your age basically had the same fangirly obsession with the movie Labyrinth when she was sixteen that you did and has now fulfilled her/your fantasy of re-working the story of Labyrinth into a juicier and more intense novel version?

You read the damn thing.   Of COURSE. 

You go and buy it at the store ASAP.

If you’re poor(ish) like me, you put a hold on it at the library.

I will have you know I had two people ahead of me when I put my name down for Wintersong. I patiently waited for almost 3 weeks and then miraculously, just before I had to leave on an R & R vacay, it was there, waiting for me on the hold shelf. Merry Early Christmas. The title is Christmassy and the cover even LOOKS Christmassy, I mean c’mon:

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Outer 29-year-old Brenna walked out of the library with a stolid face but inner 16-year-old Brenna was squealing with glee. This had to be good, right? Not “life-changing,” not “genius,” but it had to be deliciously good.

So, like the patient, disciplined adult I am, I started reading it almost as soon as I got home.

 

AAAAAND, yeah, it was pretty clear from the beginning that this was not straight up Fanfic. Let me explain.

 

Jae Jones has a vision in Wintersong that is much broader than simply retelling Labyrinth ala an eloquent YA novel. She has a lot of stuff going on, actually.

 

Wintersong is set in late 18th century Bavaria, in the most magical and musical-y section of Western Europe possible. The Goblin King is in this story, obviously, but he’s more than just Jareth redux – he’s a mythical entity following a famous old tradition in folklore of abducting maidens, not babies in striped PJS.   And the fate of the entire world is at stake.

 

This novel, in basic plotline, is a cross-pollination of Labyrinth, Hades and Persephone, Goblin Market and the Phantom of the Opera – all set in Chrismassy 18th century Bavaria.

 

Which means it should be the Best. Romantic. YA. Novel. Ever.

 

Should.

 

A book pretty much does not have an excuse to not be when it’s got those influences behind it. And if you don’t believe it, Jae-Jones herself has listed ALL of those stories as her influences on her blog (and on Goodreads).

Now for the reality.

 

Okay, so you’ve got a story that’s VERY loosely following the Labyrinth plot and now imagine:

 

  • Sarah is a moody, victimized musical genius
  • Toby is a teenage anemic violin prodigy, and –
  • The Goblin King, instead of looking like this…

nABRoQ0T

(You know, wrinkles, crooked teeth, weird hair, and everything that basically makes him charming and original)


…looks more like THIS:

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Oh, and the goblins aren’t Jim Henson muppets. They’re just…goblins. Really boring ones.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

 

Meet Sarah Liesl, our 19-year-old “wretchedly plain” protagonist.   No, she really IS plain. She emphasizes that fact over and over again to assure you she’s not just being humble.   But of course, to make up for her plainness Liesl is highly intelligent and musically gifted. As in, she composes symphonic masterpieces by candlelight after the family has gone to bed. Yep.

 

Liesl has a dumb blonde Mary Sue-type younger sister, Kathë, who of course is not musically gifted. But she is gifted with getting guys’ attention. Liesl does not hesitate to slut-shame her better-endowed little sis.

 

She fluttered and flirted outrageously, carefully oblivious to the stares she drew like moths to the flame. Both men and women traced the lines of her body, the curve of her cheek, the pout of her lip.

 

Looking at Kathë, it was difficult to forget just how sinful our bodies were, just how prone they were to wickedness.

 

Oh man, this Liesl girl has ISSUES. Like daughter-of-a-fundamentalist-pastor-who-secretly-masturbates-and-feels-guilty issues.

 

Liesl is of course jealous of Kathë, too.

 

My sister had crossed the threshold from girl to woman without me, and I felt abandoned. Betrayed. I watched a young man fawn over my sister as she perused his booth, and a lump rose in my throat, resentment so bitter I nearly choked on it.

 

Boo-hoo, poor heroine, so tragic you’re just too darn skinny and waify. What would happen if she drank a few more milkshakes?   Guess she’s too busy being invisible and writing musical masterpieces.url

Liesl has Toby Joseph, a younger brother who she cares for very much, but who she also has sacrificed her precious time and talent for. Liesl’s negligent father refuses to invest his future in Liesl because she has an xx chromosome and not xy, so he pours his efforts into helping Joseph, who is sweet and gifted, but of course not as gifted as Liesl. Liesl only somewhat resents this as she adores her fragile and sensitive little bro.

Pretty soon Joseph is off to an apprenticeship and grand tour of Europe, leaving Liesl stuck with her unforgivably voluptuous sister.

Enter the Goblin King.

In a twist off the plot in Labyrinth, Liesl loses not her younger brother, but her younger sister to the Goblin King (and it’s Kathë who eats an enchanted peach instead). Horrified that she has been so selfish as to not check up on her wayward sensual sibling, Liesl begs the Goblin King for a second chance. Not so easy, as the Goblin King needs to continually find new human sacrifices, a-hem, brides to keep the world order going. Kathë “will do” as his latest wife and Liesl is horrified.

It’s hard to tell at first if Liesl is still jealous of Kathë (“I love the Goblin King more than she does!”) or genuinely worried about her. It seems to be both of those, plus a heaping tablespoon of guilt for being the self-absorbed flaming introvert she is. Liesl must save her sister, but of course that comes at a price.

So without further ado, Liesl sacrifices a score of her precious music to follow Kathë into the underground world and to face off the Goblin King.

Up to this point the book is still fairly OK. Theeeeen it gets….weirder.

 rxegj4

Liesl finds herself with Kathë at a PG-13 Goblin Ball getting groped by sexy(?) humanoid goblins and offered booze that of course she drinks, being the flawed and insecure 19-year-old that she is.   This is the beginning of our descent into Liesl’s awkward, naughty side. Get comfy because this is how we see her almost the rest of the book.

The taste is heady on my tongue. The world is bright, the sounds are clear, and everything is beautiful. Touches, touches everywhere. A hand on my waist. Fingers in my hair. Wine-red lips that taste of temptation. They leave stains on my neck, where my skin meets my clothes, the rising swell of my breasts and the valley between them.

I guess this is the part where the reader is supposed to heave into hardcore fantasizing. I dunno, but reading passages like this make me sort of hover and tense up, like I’m holding my bladder. I suspect it has to do with bodice-ripping descriptions like “rising swell of breasts” – seriously, that’s as original a description as possible?? I mean, is it just gonna ramble on like this or is something going to actually happen?

 

Well, stuff does happen….

 

In a rather predictable arrangement, Liesl and the Goblin King agree for her to swap places with Kathë and become the Goblin King’s new bride. After all, Kathë has more of a social life up in the world above, and no one would miss Liesl as much (sniff, sniff). So Kathë gets to return to the world above and Liesl walks down the aisle with his Goblin-y Hotness instead. I guess it would be a heroic sacrifice if it weren’t for the obvious fact that Liesl has a huge thing for the Goblin King.

Despite my plainness, I thought the Goblin King and I had shared a spark, but perhaps it was only I who was ready to burst into flames.

Still, she’s quite insecure, being “wretchedly plain” and all, and can’t really seem to let go. “Why me?” she wails to the Goblin King, more than once. Tut-tut, fishing, are we?

He had said so much, yet nothing I wanted to hear. That he desired me. That he had chosen me…I could feel his gaze upon every part of my body: on my neck, where my shoulders disappeared into the torn sleeves of my blouse, the line of my collarbone as it lead to my décolletage, the swell and ebb of my breasts as I breathed. I had waited for this my entire life, I realized. Not to be found beautiful – but desirable. Wanted.

Those “swelling breasts” again. Yeah, she sounds hideous. But GK doesn’t take the bait, he just says politically correct stuff about how she’s special and she has music in her soul. The stuff every girl dreams of hearing.

My question is, why is Liesl so ga-ga for Goblin King? Because he’s…hot? He appreciates music and wears finery? Very deep, I must say.   There actually is a whole side note about how Liesl and the Goblin King knew each other as kids (sort of) and shared a connection back then, but it’s pretty opaque and Liesl never really explains it. But I guess that is supposed to be the reason for her “love” for him.

ANYWHOOOOO –

The story just continues to get more awkward. Soon after their wedding Liesl, in anticipation of, you know, married people stuff, jumps her netherworld hubby and basically tries to get it on. Goblin King turns out to be just as much a closet romantic as Liesl is a closet slut and tells her “stop,” just as they’re turning up the heat.

“Elizabeth.” His tone was steady. “There’s so much you don’t know. Would you still want this if you knew?

A laugh burst from me. I could no more disguise my wanting than I could my eagerness. Neither could he. I had felt the shape of him, through his trousers, pressed against me.

“Yes,” I breathed. “Yes, I would. Yes, I do. I want this.”

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Just FYI that is the first of three times she describes the “outline” of him under his breeches in the same scene. Cuz it’s really important for her self-esteem to know that he is truly turned on.   Even though he’s being a sensitive turd and has more self control than she does because he wants it to be more “special”(??)

Like any angsty not-quite-adult, Liesl rages back in her room and hurls stuff against the wall to release her sexual frustration before sitting down to get back to work on one of her musical masterpieces (called the “Wedding Night Sonata” appropriately enough).

Her and Goblin King slowly reconcile, continue to have awkward and moody conversations and eventually consummate their marriage in poetic and ecstatic throes, at the conclusion of which the Goblin King whispers,

“I am the monster I warned you against.”

 

“You are,” I say hoarsely, “The monster I claim.”

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Yeeeeeee-aahh, okay, that’s nice. Whatever floats your boat, girl. They go on to write music, sing together and tumble in bed for a brief blissful spell before Liesl and the Goblin King both realize that Liesl’s mortal life is fading away in the hostile immortal goblin world. Big Decisions must be made about whether or not she can stay with the Goblin King and whether or not the world will continue to turn on its axis. Decisions so Big, Jae-Jones had to leave it open for a sequel.

So that’s it in summary. But this book. THIS BOOK…

 

Urgh, I don’t believe a meme exists yet that can perfectly describe my feelings about this book. No, it’s not throw-it-against-the-wall awful. It’s not even awful. It actually has some things that are kinda good, or could be good. Really good. It’s the failed potential, man.  It’s just cruel. Like, this should have been the most epic, tense, operatic, romantic story of all time and instead it’s all about coming-of-age insecurities and pyscho-sexuality. No quiero.   And let’s not dance around the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about the most disappointing element in the story.

 

Let’s talk about the Goblin King.

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This is probably the closest that Jareth comes to looking like Jae-Jones’ Goblin King…

 

OK, I admit, this would probably be the hardest thing to get right in any spin-off of Labyrinth, Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera, etc.

You’ve got to love the main male character. He has to be uhhh-mazing. And to be fair, Jae-Jones really did try. I could tell. But….just…urgh…(tugs at hair roots)…

 

Let’s talk about Jareth, because that is who Jae-Jones used as the main inspiration for her Goblin King. Jones even said she wishes David Bowie (RIP) were still alive/able to play the movie version of her Goblin King, so there ya go.

There are some obvious similarities between Jareth and GK. (And no, in true Rumplestiltskin style, we never find out in Wintersong what Jones’ Goblin King’s name is. So stop asking).

Both Jareth and GK are tall and blonde and slender. Really slender. Letsee, they both are kings of a goblin kingdom where you need to say, “I wish,” for the goblins to obey you. They both have “mismatched” eyes (David Bowie’s left eye was permanently dilated). They are both…mysterious. Sort of.

To be accurate, part of the time GK acts a lot like Jareth.   If you’re a fellow Labyrinth junkie, you can spot obvious instances. Like this one:

 

“Tsk, tsk.” The Goblin King waved one long slender finger at me. “I had thought you a worthy opponent. We were playing a game, Fräulein, but you don’t seem much inclined to engage me.”

“A game?” I asked. “What game?”

“Why the best game in the world.” He leaped from his languid pose by the alder tree, suddenly alert, suddenly sharp. “One where I take something you love and hide it. If you don’t come and find it, it’s mine to keep.”

 

Okay, that’s kind of awesome. Or how about this:

 

“You think too much, Elizabeth,” he said. “To much about propriety, too much about duty, too much about everything but music. For once, don’t think.” The Goblin King smiled. It was a wicked grin, one that made me feel unsafe and excited at the same time. “Don’t think. Feel.”

Wonderful. I can almost imagine his sharp teeth protruding just like in the ballroom scene in the movie – that scene full of weird people with Venetian masks and Jennifer Connelly in her epic 80’s hair and puffed sleeves. This is how I wanted the whole book to be.

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What I wished/sort of expected…
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What it actually felt like…

There are lots of other smaller, but still obvious tributes. Jae-Jones describes her Goblin King as wearing various fancy clothes, at one point looking “resplendent as a peacock.” Hmm-hmmm-hmmm (giggle sound). He says posh things like, “a fine vintage, if I do say so myself.” He can be impatient and even mean to his goblin minions.

The most obvious instance is when the Goblin King steals a line directly from Labyrinth and says to Liesl, “I’m tired of living up to your expectations.” (In Labyrinth it’s Jareth who says the line to Sarah. Unlike Sarah, Liesl responds by telling the Goblin King, “And I’m tired of living up to yours.”)

 

But for the most part, at least in my opinion, the Goblin King is not at all like Jareth.

 

For starters, he is obsessed with music. In Labyrinth the closest we ever got to that was seeing Jareth singing “Dance Magic Dance,” and doing some awkward improv dancing.   GK can play the violin and clavier with proficiency. He has an education and appreciation for classical, highbrow music and even falls in love with Liesl because of the “music in her soul.”

This brings us to the other big source for Jae-Jones’ Goblin King character: the Phantom. As in, Phantom of the Opera.  As in, this dude:

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Yes, the author herself really did say the Phantom was a model for her mysterious hero. “Squee, awesome” inner teen Brenna screams once again, because it turns out that I have been a Phantom of the Opera lover ever since 12-year-old me saw an electrifying version on stage with a flawlessly dynamic actor playing the titular character. I was a Phantom fan (phan?) before I was a Labyrinth fan.

 

And there are some passages in the book that have wafts and hints of “Phantomness.” Like this one:

 

“What is eternal life but prolonged death?” the Goblin King asked. “I live in a tedium unending, dying just a little more each day, unable to truly feel.” He walked back to the klavier and ran his hand lightly over the keyboard…

 

“I would give anything to feel again.” His voice was low, so low I could scarcely hear it. “And for a long time, I thought I never would. Then I heard you play your music for me back in the Goblin Grove. For the first time in an eternity, I hoped– I thought–“…

 

“Your music,” he said at last. “Your music was the only thing that kept me sane, that kept me human instead of a monster.”

 

Sexy, admittedly, yes. Once again: if only the WHOLE BOOK, and not just a few glimpses were like this. (Tragic sigh).

Because for all her allegation, Jae Jones’ Goblin King is not so much Jareth or Phantom – or a fusion of the two – as he is a flawlessly handsome, “gorgeous,” good-hearted, unselfish and nonviolent, non scary, dreamy twenty-something under an unfair spell that keeps him stuck in a time warp of sorts. In fact, the true Goblin King is a “soft-eyed young man” that Liesl sees from time to time when he’s not acting flippant and imperial and attractively moody. Basically, he’s a wonderful young man (sarcastic old lady voice) who needs to be set free by true love. He’s not a villain. Not even an anti-hero.

 

So yeah, not cool. I’m not sure how Jae Jones fused Jareth with the Phantom and came up with a dreamy elf boy. You would THINK combining the first two characters would create the ultimate Fantasy-Character-To-End-All-Fantasy-Characters, but instead it’s a bowl of vanilla pudding. Kinda reminds me of that Jim Gaffigan skit: “Fruit: good. Cake: great. Fruitcake: nasty crap.” 

 

I mean, HOW DOES:

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Answer: It doesn’t . (Bangs head on the table).

But what really messes this story up is the character of Liesl and the earthiness she brings to it. GIANT PERSONAL OPINION ALERT: We are on subjective waters here. Liesl’s character and the gritty sensual aspects of the story are exactly what a lot of readers have found appealing about Wintersong. It made the New York Times Bestseller list, after all.

 

Liesl is extremely flawed and even awkward, like many of us girls, or how we think of ourselves, anyway. Surely that is to be validating and realistic and oh-so-awesome, right??

First of all, Liesl may be flawed, but she’s not exactly relatable. She has the ability to compose brilliant music on the level of Mozart or Beethoven, practically. Cool sure, but not relatable. More relatable is her obsessive insecurity about her looks but that gets to be a bit much. If I didn’t know better, in fact, I’d say Liesl is more similar to the Phantom than the Goblin King is.

Here’s the thing: when I read fantasy, I want an escape. That means I want a main girl who’s just a little bit superior to me so that I can comfortably imagine I’m her – basically, I get to fantasize about being an upgraded version of myself. I do NOT get validation out of reading about an ugly heroine whose handsome prince loves her, warts and all. In fact, GK loves Liesl BECAUSE she’s ugly (!?) And of course, not only is he handsome, but he’s the world’s best lover. Which brings me to the next part –

 The sex.

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There is a lot of action happening in the last quarter of Wintersong. That kind of action. It’s not erotic, it’s not even that cheesy, but there is a lot of showing it, a lot of talk about it, and just a lot of physical earthiness going on overall. Let’s just say the Goblin King seems to have blood coursing through his body that enables him to do his thing.

I don’t have a problem at all with sex per se. That’s not where I’m going with this. You read a D.H. Lawrence novel, there’s sex right and left, and it’s relevant because it’s all about being human and the human experience.   Even more graphic, modern stuff has its place for the same reasons. Sex is one of the messiest, earthiest, normal-est things we can do. Kind of like sneezing boogers, except way more sublime.

So why do we keep talking about what’s going on in the Goblin King’s pants (and no, you cannot compare this to Jareth’s codpiece, that’s not even related) and why are we spending so much time hearing about Liesl and her sexual insecurities and desire for sexual validation? Are we supposed to cheer every time they get it on? Is this something we’re supposed to even be…seeing? Cuz honestly, it’s not magical – it’s a very mortal, animal kind of thing, a thing that transports us out of the fantasy realm and straight into gritty, boogery human reality. For D.H. Lawrence and co I’m all for sex scenes, but for a fantasy story in the fae world I would muuuuuuch rather have more left to the imagination. Allowing me to imagine sex makes it more of a fantasy, whereas showing the sex and the sexual emotions plucks me right out of Fantasy Mode and right into Indie Movie-Slice-Of-Life Mode.

That may sound totally anal and not make sense, but that is how I operate.   Both Jareth and the Phantom are larger than life, bizarre characters, and seeing what’s in their pants humanizes them and totally breaks the spell. Only our imaginations can tread the balance between human-y stuff like sex and the epic, larger then life-ness. (You can tell I’ve given this serious thought. It’s okay if you think I’m creepy).

But even the sex and sensuality might have worked if Liesl hadn’t been so angsty and in-your-face transgressive. “I am not a saint,” she tells us, “I am a sinner. I want to sin again and again and again.” Geez, girl, did you tell your therapist this or are you just looking for attention?

It’s fine – it’s healthy – to be in touch with your libido and proactive about it. But Liesl plunges headlong into groping the Goblin King, desperate for validation, when she has all of Goblin Eternity to get to actually get to know him. If the author sees this as a flaw in her heroine, Liesl never admits as much. No confessions of, “Yeah, I need to dial it down, there are more important things in a relationship.”

Most disturbing of all is when Liesl finally does rid herself of her accursed virginity. Her awakening the next morning is accompanied by some of the ultimate clichés, including “a mess of blood” on the bed and the satisfaction that she has finally become a woman.

My wedding night. My true wedding night. 

The world had changed somehow. I was changed…My life was divided into two neat and perfect halves: Before and After.

Liesl. Elisabeth. I had been Liesl until the moment we gathered each other in our arms, when I granted the Goblin King mercy as he absolved me of my shame. I had emerged from the other side of our tryst a different woman: no longer Liesl, but Elisabeth.

 

Seriously???

 

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This is the message Jae-Jones wants to send to all teens? That you’re not a full person until you’ve done The Nasty? All’s I can say is, if that’s how you think, prepare to be disappointed. Yes, sex is amazing but (winces that I have to even say this) there are other wonderful things in life and it’s just not that simple. Obsessing over sexual activity and thinking that sex = self-esteem increase is dangerous magical thinking that does not lead to happiness.  Duh.  And curse you, Wintersong, for unexpectedly making me stand on a soap box.

Blah.

So basically, I get the vibe that Jae-Jones was in the mode of “Get away from anything Disney Princess as much as possible!!” and swung the other way to create a heroine who’s basically an 18th century Bavarian version of Alanis Morissette. Horsey face and all. Can we not meet in the middle somewhere?

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Wouldn’t be surprised if Liesl was patterned after Morissette, angst and all…

IN CONCLUSION (!!)

 

Wintersong has snitches and snatches of good stuff, amazing potential, but 80% of the execution is like:

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I know at this point you might not believe me, but I spent so much time reading this stupid book and even more writing this stupid long review that I’m half tempted to read the sequel when it comes out next year.

Only this time, I won’t run to the library. I will leisurely walk. And my expectations will be rock bottom so that this time around I might actually like it more than I thought. Or it might be even crappier than the first book. Guess there’s only one way to find out.

Thanks for reading.