What are monsters but mortals corrupted?*
Strange and queer, the lot of them. Elf-touched, they were called in the old days…The mad, the fearful, the faithful. Those who dwell with one foot in the Underground and another in the world above.*
* * *
We were grotesques in the world above, too different, too odd, too talented, too much.
S. Jae-Jones is a brilliant writer.
I will admit that I didn’t love the entirety of Wintersong––I loved the first half but thought the second was a little slow––but I always thought that S.Jae-Jones’ writing was beautiful and spectacular. Her writing shone in Shadowsong. The images she creates with her words are utterly beautiful, forming Liesl’s world for the reader in a very poetic way. It’s perfect for the setting of fairy-tales and goblins and music. S.Jae-Jones is someone who can create a world with her words that I just want to immerse myself in. Couple that with the fact that Shadowsong is a fantasy novel with a historical setting and I’m hooked.
Although Shadowsong is fiction, S. Jae-Jones gives her readers an author’s note at the beginning warning that not everything inside of this novel is so easily read as a fiction. Shadowsong deals with the very real subjects of self-harm, addiction, reckless behaviors, and thoughts of suicide. The author is open with her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder and how she gave it to Liesl. There were moments that were difficult to read because of how Liesl was struggling. I could relate to certain thoughts she had regarding creation of art and fear of failure and doubt. I thought it was wonderful that S. Jae-Jones was completely open about this at the beginning of her novel.
I waited for some mood or inspiration to strike me, for the desire to play to overtake me, but there was nothing. Solitude around me and silence within me. I had not dreamed once since we came to the city. The voice inside me––my voice––was gone. No ideas. No drive. No passion. My nights were quiet. Blank. The dullness was seeping into my days.*
It’s a very common idea that madness and genius are connected. Musicians and composers of Liesl’s time suffered from mental disorders that many may have attributed to the madness/genius of creation. Mental disorders were not understood in Liesl’s time, and that reflects onto her own confusion as she tries to navigate the waters of her own depression while simultaneously trying to understand and be there for her brother, Josef. There’s a darkness and loneliness that is present throughout the whole novel as Liesl explores who she is after becoming the Goblin Queen. Up in the Above, away from the Underground, she’s once again a normal woman. Where before she had a focus––composing––now she can barely manage to play. Her mental state was in the forefront of the novel and sometimes even Liesl didn’t know how to address it.
It’s even more complicated because Liesl finally has what she wants and yet she still feels this unrest within herself. I thought it was important that S. Jae-Jones made that point. Being successful doesn’t always lead to happiness. There’s no 1+1=2 solution to being happy or even being calm. Liesl’s struggle with the pressure to compose––to heal––is something that S. Jae-Jones carefully weaves throughout the story. The fear of failure. This is revealed through both Liesl and Josef, the two musicians of the family. It’s something that Liesl thinks she has to bear alone, so she’s blind to the people who are trying to help her.
Perhaps I was afraid I had nothing left to say.*
I loved that S. Jae-Jones showed that conflict within Liesl––and how it sometimes led to hatred of herself––in this novel. It wasn’t resolved in a neat and tidy bow, either. It was realistically explored, with Liesl understanding that she couldn’t always do it on her own. Only when she had this realization did she find some measure of peace. What I liked the most is that S. Jae-Jones didn’t make Liesl her disorder. She had it, but the disorder did not have her.
I could rise above this. I would rise above this. This life was what I wanted. This was the culmination of all my wishes, all my desires. I just needed time. I would be myself, whole and entire, once again. I would. I would.*
She carries the imprint of the Goblin King’s touch upon her soul.*
The line between sanity and madness is played up in this novel. When Liesl left the Underground, she thought that was the end of it. But when things begin to leak into the world above, Liesl realizes that she never truly left the Underground. But she doesn’t know if it’s real or not. She keeps thinking that she’s seeing her lover or her companions from the Underground. It’s making it really hard to forget about her life below, to move on.
As a result, Shadowsong was about far different things than the first novel. I feel like Wintersong was about the importance of family and finding a place for yourself on your own, mixed in with romance and the world of the Underground. In contrast, Shadowsong was about finding out who you really are––even the parts that you don’t necessarily love about yourself––and understanding that one part of you is not who you are as a person. It’s far more internal than the first. I don’t know if that’s the reason why I enjoyed Shadowsong more––it’s certainly part of the reason––or if the reason is because this is S. Jae-Jones’ second novel and more streamlined than the first.
What was real and what was false was as unreliable as memory, and I lived in the in-between spaces, between the pretty lie and the ugly truth.*
* * *
But what about the Goblin King? Her love interest whose name has been forgotten by the passage of time? While he is present in Liesl’s thoughts, he’s hardly in the novel at all. The romance in the first novel was something I didn’t particularly like, so his diminished presence was fine by me. I’m sure many readers expected the opposite; I certainly thought Liesl was going to return to the Underground immediately. It was a pleasant surprise that she didn’t. I enjoyed that their love story wasn’t the center of everything. It was like Liesl was the center, and there were a bunch of webs spreading out from her to create Liesl, entire.
While Liesl drove this story, Shadowsong is also about the Goblin King, Josef, Käthe, and François. There’s other characters as well, but these are the four that are most important in Liesl’s life. I enjoyed that S. Jae-Jones used a different point of view to show how these characters’ storylines were advancing. It kept it separate from Liesl but still showed how it all was connected. These asides allowed the past of the Goblin King to slowly grow into a bigger story without swamping Liesl’s growth. It was really interesting to see how the narrative of the Underground was shaped in this one when most of the time was spent Aboveground.
No two stories of the unholy host agree. It is said that their appearance presages some unspeakable catastrophe: a plague, a war, or even the end of the world. Others say the Hunt rides abroad when there is an imbalance between heaven and hell, between the Underground and the land of the living, sweeping through the world above to claim what is rightfully theirs. The old laws made flesh: given steel and teeth and hounds to reap what they are owed.*
When people begin to die under mysterious circumstances, she wonders if it’s her fault for leaving. I loved that there was a new element to Goblin lore in the Wild Hunt. It was a scary force that lingered at the edges of the story while Liesl battled her own internal demons. Adding the Wild Hunt but not making the entire novel about them was brilliant. Again, maybe other readers thought it was going to be more about the Goblin world and were disappointed, but I loved that S. Jae-Jones kept the novel centered on Liesl while everything else moved on in the background.
I want to keep talking about this novel, but a lot of my thoughts are still jumbled and incoherent because of my love for it. Shadowsong is a great fantasy book that gives representation to a lot of marginalized characters and people both of the past and of the present. I think that this sophomore novel is the better of the duology, but without the first the second wouldn’t exist. S. Jae-Jones is going to be an author I watch because she has a truly splendid way of storytelling.
The queer, the wild, the strange, the elf-touched––they are said to belong to the Goblin King. Their gifts are the fruits of the Underground, their genius, their passion, their obsession, their art. They belong to him, for they are Der Erlkönig’s own.*
I received a copy of Shadowsong from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Shadowsong was published on February 6th, 2018.
*I went a bit overboard with the quotes because I love S. Jae-Jones’ writing a lot. The quotes were taken from the advance reading copy I received, so some of the quotes may have changed slightly in the published edition.