You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Well that was a surprise. With the last several reviews I’ve drafted, I wanted to love the book but didn’t. With this one, I didn’t think I would love the book but unexpectedly did. Life’s just full of little surprises.
Wintersong is the story of Maria Elisabeth “Liesl” Ingeborg Vogler, daughter of German innkeepers and struggling composer. She has a younger sister, the even longer-named Anna Katharina “Käthe” Magdalena Ingeborg Vogler, and a younger brother, Franz Josef Johannes Gottlieb Vogler, and they all live in their parents’ inn, along with their paternal grandmother, Constanze. Unlike her siblings, Liesl is considered plain and talentless by her parents, who focus most of their energy on Josef’s preternatural talent with the violin, deaf to his ongoing efforts to tell them that Liesl is the genius composer whose pieces he frequently plays. When their alcoholic father does hear him, he tells Liesl that her compositions are a waste of time despite having praised them extravagantly when he thought they were Josef’s; their mother, meanwhile, keeps Liesl hard at work in the background of the inn, where she is unnoticeable. All of this has given Liesl a whopping case of impostor syndrome, combined with a crippling inferiority complex that prevents her from composing openly, though she continues to work on her music in secret. Thus, she is very much not in the mood to hear it when a Goblin King pops out of nowhere and gives her a klavier as a wedding gift – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Growing up at their grandmother’s knee, Liesl and her siblings were raised to believe in the old folktales of goblins and the Underground. Over time Constanze’s influence has waned, however, and, though Josef still believes, Liesl is now old enough to be skeptical, and Käthe has no interest at all. Late in the autumn – on the last day of the year, according to the old calendar, when the barrier between the human world and the Underground is at its weakest – Käthe is seduced by goblin men during what should’ve been a routine trip to the village market, and returns to the inn under their enchantment. Unfortunately, the seduction happens to fall on the day Josef is auditioning to become the apprentice of master violinist Giovanni Antonius Rossi, and, with the entire Vogler family in an uproar, Constanze’s repeated warnings are dismissed out of hand. For these reasons, nobody notices when Käthe is spirited away to the Underground to become the bride of the Goblin King, the latest in a very long string of young women sacrificed to ensure winter proceeds into spring. Wracked with the guilt Constanze has dumped on her head for her failure to take care of Käthe, Liesl follows her, and, after some mishaps, agrees to marry the Goblin King in her sister’s stead. Käthe returns to their family, and Liesl becomes the Queen of the Goblins.
To be fair to the Goblin King, this isn’t as bad as it sounds. He may be King of a pile of goblins, but he’s one of literally two people who support Liesl’s musical ambitions, and he actually does have some manners (despite his longstanding habit of kidnapping maidens – look, nobody’s perfect). He can be moody, deceitful, and dangerous, but Liesl begins to recognize flashes of what she calls “the austere young man,” her pet name for his more human side. Their mutual attraction is sealed by the music they make together, and they genuinely fall in love, which is a real bummer because they both know that the Goblin Queen gig will be the literal death of Liesl. After a couple months or so of avoiding the issue, during which time Liesl adapts to the Underground despite her declining health and learns more about changelings than she ever wanted to know, the Goblin King divorces her of his own accord and releases her to the human world to live her life the way they both want her to. Upon her return, Liesl sends Josef – now an apprentice under Master Antonius – the unfinished wedding sonata she wrote with the Goblin King.
First things first: I thought this was YA. This is not YA. The marital relations that almost take place before Liesl and the Goblin King finally consummate are a lot more adult than I was expecting, though not explicit enough to qualify as a trashy romance (for which I am duly grateful). I say “finally” because Liesl gets trashed on their wedding night and the Goblin King refuses to take advantage of intoxicated women (for which I am also grateful), so they don’t actually do the deed until they’ve gotten to know each other a bit better. Aside from the usual frustrations and irritations that typically come with these types of romances, their relationship is better than I was expecting. Per usual, it wasn’t my favorite part of the book, but I was okay with it. I even kinda ship them a little, when they’re not busy miscommunicating. I was worried that the Goblin King would find out that Liesl had inadvertently spied on him in his chapel and was relieved when he didn’t, though this may be an issue that comes up in the sequel.
Somewhat surprisingly, my biggest irritation with this book wasn’t the romance, but the grandmother. This was very much unexpected, given that Constanze is barely in the book, but she managed it somehow. Though Liesl’s mother is subjected to some of Constanze’s hectoring too, Constanze’s usual target is Liesl, whom she relentlessly badgers while offering very little material support. When Liesl finally realizes that goblins are a thing and that they have her sister, Constanze treats her like a nuisance, sneers at her tardiness, and refuses to help until Liesl mentions that she has managed to strike a deal with the Goblin King. Her goblin-related concerns are not unreasonable, but I think it’s too much to expect Liesl to help run the inn, prepare Josef for his apprenticeship audition, run special errands, remember everything Constanze ever told her about the goblins, and somehow still take care of Käthe, who theoretically is old enough to know not to take fruit from strangers, whether they look like goblins or not.
While it’s true that Liesl coddles Josef and neglects Käthe, Käthe is not five. If she’s old enough to consent to a marriage, she’s old enough to know better than to take fruit from a fucking stranger. Their relationship could certainly be better, but so much has fallen on Liesl’s shoulders over time that I don’t think it would’ve killed Constanze to do some of the caretaking herself instead of shaming Liesl for not doing a better job, especially considering Constanze’s main role in the family seems to be to mutter ominous warnings. “Mind how you choose” is her constant refrain, and it drove me up a metaphorical wall. And, yes, Käthe is young and flighty, but the gap between her and Liesl is not wide enough to justify the matching gap in their responsibilities, and guilt-tripping Liesl into caring for a teenaged sibling who isn’t that much younger than herself is absurd. I mean, if we’re shaming anybody, we really should be shaming the inattentive parents, who treat Liesl more like a servant than a daughter.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I don’t know enough about Constanze, which is certainly true. Maybe Käthe really is incapable of growing up at this moment in time, though that still seems ridiculous to me. Maybe I’m judging this family based on one of their worst moments because I’ve never seen them at their best. Or maybe I identify just a little too closely with Liesl as another eldest child who habitually neglects one sibling for another. Whatever the case may be with my sympathies or my lack thereof, Liesl remains my favorite character. She didn’t seem like buckets of fun when I first met her, but appearances are deceiving, because she turned out to be smart, feisty, and funny. She learns pretty quickly how to get the goblins to do almost anything she wants, and she has no qualms about dropping in on the Goblin King when he’s naked in bed (before they’re married!), though admittedly she didn’t intend to catch him with his pants down. She even learns to start prioritizing the things she wants instead of putting everybody else’s needs first, which is wonderful. I hope this is a trend that will continue in the second book.
I also hope the second book moves quicker than the first, because there were places where the pacing made me want to scream. It seemed like Käthe was going to get abducted directly from the market, but then we went back to the inn. Käthe wandered into the woods by herself while under the influence of the Goblin King, but then Liesl found her and we went back to the inn. A little while later Käthe really was abducted and the Goblin King turned up at Josef’s audition and I thought we were finally going to go to the Underground, but then we went back to the inn and we stayed there for several weeks. This is exactly the kind of thing that drives me nuts, because I wanted to go to the Underground and it took us so fucking long to get there.
Even with these objections, though, the book was still a fairly easy four stars. The musical component seemed pretty solid, the world-building was great, and the romance wasn’t too obnoxious, and, all in all, I’m looking forward to the sequel.