S. Jae-Jones

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

Man, this book. Now is the winter of our discontent, because this is yet another fine example of a book I wanted to love but ultimately didn’t despite my (relatively) glowing review of its predecessor.

Shadowsong is the second book in the Wintersong duology, and it picks up six months after the end of Wintersong, which saw Elisabeth “Liesl” Vogler returning to the human world after a brief stint in the Underground as the Goblin Queen. This seems like it should be smooth sailing, considering the whole Goblin Queen thing almost killed her, but it isn’t: her father dies; her parents’ inn falls into near ruin; her brother Josef has not responded to any of the letters she has sent him; her grandmother Constanze seems determined to make all their lives as unpleasant as possible; and, possibly worst of all, she has run into a serious case of writer’s block and has been unable to compose since leaving the Underground. She also suffers from bipolar disorder, which grows increasingly severe despite (or perhaps because of) her efforts to control it. Music has always been her outlet, but, with her ability to compose on hold, she has nothing left to mitigate the effects of her illness.

While Liesl struggles in Germany, Josef struggles with his new life as a professional musician in Paris, trying to balance his love of music with his overwhelming desire to go home. Following the sudden death of Master Antonius, he flees to Vienna with his lover François, an extraordinarily talented pianist from Saint-Domingue. Things seemingly take a turn for the better when Liesl receives a letter from Count Graf Procházka von und zu Snovin, a prospective benefactor who invites her to Vienna to join Josef and even provides a significant amount of money to cover her moving costs. Though she has some serious misgivings, among them Count Procházka’s apparent disregard for personal boundaries, she moves to Vienna, taking Käthe with her. Her joyful reunion with Josef quickly cools when he learns that Liesl has no intention of taking him back home to Germany, and they fall into a bitter, fractious relationship. Their initial spats are buffered by Käthe and François, but things finally come to a head when Liesl and Josef are abducted by Count and Countess Procházka, ostensibly for their own safety, while Käthe and François are spirited away to actual safety by a goblin named Bramble. Left with nothing and no one in between them and their respective “madnesses,” as Liesl refers to them, they turn upon each other despite a mutual longing to reconcile. Their relationship completely falls apart when Liesl finally admits that Josef is a changeling who slipped into her family when her real brother died of scarlet fever. Josef returns to the Underground in a rage, no longer able to claim any identity of his own, and Liesl follows him, sacrificing the last of her sanity in the process.

Meanwhile, the Goblin King has been having issues of his own since divorcing Liesl, and, with no new bride to take her place (and thus no sacrifice to ensure the turning of the seasons), he is in serious trouble with the old laws. He still retains shreds of his humanity, but every day brings him closer to losing everything. Liesl attempts to save both her brother and her Goblin King by sacrificing herself, but her almost-death devastates them both, and in the end Josef agrees to take the Goblin King’s throne to maintain the balance between the worlds without Liesl’s death. Liesl and the Goblin King (whose name turns out to be Wolfgang) return to the human world, where they marry and grow old together, and Josef becomes the new Goblin King. It is a completely satisfactory ending, and I have nothing bad to say about it.

With all that being said, this book made me crazy. Despite extravagant hopes on my part, the pacing was no faster than it was in the first book. I know there are people who thrive on the back-and-forth-will-they-won’t-they thing, but I spent the entire book wanting Liesl and Josef to reconcile and they just couldn’t do it. Liesl literally had to lose her mind and stab herself before Josef forgave her. I would have liked to have seen Liesl learning new strategies to deal with her illness (in the absence of modern treatments) and developing her music on her own, as a complete musician in her own right, without leaning on Josef or Wolfgang for inspiration. While I love that she and Josef share a bond of music, I always thought she was too dependent on him. He is a crutch rather than a co-composer, and her affection for him generally feels more like obsession. She is supposed to become “Elisabeth, entire,” but I don’t know that she ever really does. Wolfgang seamlessly replaces Josef in her life; we never get to see if she would ever have become an independent composer without masculine assistance, and she spends most of the book neglecting her relationships with the other female characters – who are few and far between, and generally not prominent – in favor of her relationships with the male characters, just as she did in Wintersong. I cannot overemphasize how frustrating it is to continously deal with her total lack of progression.

The Procházkas are similarly frustrating because they seemed like they were set up to be the main villains, but then they turned out to be nothing more than a lengthy distraction and I’m still not clear on their motives. I have no idea what Countess Procházka wants with Liesl and Josef. I have no idea why she insists on keeping them captive in a crumbling castle, especially considering they are free to roam at will. If it were merely a matter of sacrificing them to keep herself safe from the old laws, as she has sacrificed countless others, you’d think she would’ve gotten right down to business. Though there is some discussion of Liesl’s ability to bridge the gap between the human world and the goblin world with her music, nothing actually comes out of her extended stay at the Procházkas’ castle, and this sojourn feels more like filler material. At the very end, when the plot has finally congealed enough to prod Liesl into action, Countess Procházka shows up in her bedroom and tries to stop her, but, again, nothing comes of this and her resistance is almost farcically ineffective. She’s a little like Constanze in this way, because neither of them has much of a role beyond taunting Liesl and sneering at everything she does. (Speaking of Constanze, I said everything I have to say about her in my review of Wintersong, and will not be repeating those complaints here. But I stand by them all the same.)

This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t have its moments. I’m glad I know how the story ends. I like that Liesl has a better relationship with Käthe than she did in Wintersong, though I wish there had been more of an effort to develop the relationships between the female characters. I like that mental health is a prominent theme, and that the book also shows the effects of Liesl’s illness on the people around her, particularly Käthe and François.

“What is it you’re afraid of? I am tired of bearing your emotional burdens, Liesl. I cannot carry them forever. I am not your crutch…You’re hot, you’re cold, you’re up, you’re down, you’re fast, you’re slow. I can’t keep up with you sometimes, Liesl. You’re like a top spinning out of control, and I’m continually watching – waiting – for any wobble that might topple you.”

I was stunned. Was I so changed by my time beneath the earth? I was a different Liesl – no, Elisabeth – than I had been before I entered the realm of the goblins, but I was still the same me. Still the same soul. Still self-indulgent, selfish, selfless, savage. I had shed my skin to emerge anew, more me than before. But had I always been this insufferable? Had I always been so tiresome?

“I – I –” Words withered on my tongue. “I didn’t mean – I’m so sorry, Käthe.”

Her expression softened, but I could see that even my apology wearied her. She sighed. “Don’t apologize, Liesl,” she said. “Do. Stop wallowing and go find closure. Absolution or resolution or whatever it is, I am tired of holding your heart. Give it back to the Goblin Grove if you must. I can no longer carry it.”

Having lived on both sides of the mental illness wall, I don’t disagree with anything Käthe has said. Mental illness is exhausting. It doesn’t get any more pleasant if you’re on one side or the other. I have been – and still am – that insufferable, tiresome person, and I have dealt with people who were insufferable in their turn. There is nothing wrong with asking for help and leaning on friends and/or family for support, but it is unfair to expect others to completely take over your emotional labor. This is something I have always struggled with, though I have the opposite problem: I always assume that my problems are tiresome and unworthy of mention, because I was never taught to distinguish between self-indulgence and a legitimate need for help.

To be completely fair to Liesl, it might be more accurate to say that the book as a whole is tiresome, rather than blaming all its problems on one character. It’s hard to root for characters who completely drain me, particularly when they are living out a story that is so thoroughly irritating. Though I’ll admit that a lot of this has to do with me being impatient, in general the pace of the story and the character relationships are frustrating as hell, and they’re not really worth it. I’d definitely still recommend Wintersong, but, unless you’re nosy like me and you need to know how everything ties off, you might want to give Shadowsong a miss.