The Wintersong Series: A Tale of Two Tones

Hello, everyone! These past few weeks I’ve been stuck in fantasy land reading S. Jae Jones’ duology Wintersong and Shadowsong. The first book in the series surprised me by how quickly it pulled me in and kept me hooked until the last page. The sequel did exactly the opposite. It’s rare, at least in my experience, for an author to follow up such a strong debut with a much weaker second novel.

In her author’s note, Jones admits that writing a sequel to a novel is much more difficult than writing the original, and says that “if Wintersong was my bright mirror…then Shadowsong is my dark one.” She also makes a note to include content warnings for bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts, and the overall darker tone of the novel, ending with the number for the USA suicide hotline. While I applaud Jones for incorporating an honest look at mental illness, including a reflection of her own bipolar disorder, into her work, the author’s note definitely sets an ominous tone for the book that follows. Whether that resonates for the reader is a matter of personal taste, but for me, I preferred the bright mirror to the dark one.

Synopsis: In 18th century Bavaria, Liesl lives in her parents’ inn with her younger brother Josef, a musical prodigy, and her sister Käthe, the town beauty. Although Liesl has her own gift for composing, she has been forced to push her desires aside and support her siblings, especially Josef, who is fated to become a famous musician in Vienna. But Liesl has always been more than just the overshadowed older sister, and when her sister disappears, taken by the Goblin King, Der Erlkönig, only Liesl is brave enough to venture into the Underground and save her. Her quest to save her sister is the catalyst for a journey that takes her to the edges of reality and forces her time and time again to choose between her own wants, and the needs of the world around her.

My thoughts: Wintersong is like a softly unfolding dream. Jones is a gifted writer, and her beautifully descriptive sentences play out on the page like music. Although the pace is slow, her story is seductive, drawing you into Liesl’s intimate world, and teasing out an elaborate folklore of goblins, brave maidens, and music that can transform reality.

The story of a mortal falling in love with a dark, brooding “other” (whether that be goblin, demon, elf, or fairy) is a common trope in fantasy literature, and although Wintersong doesn’t attempt to re-write the trope, it does make for a valuable addition to the genre. The romance between Liesl and Der Erlkönig, nameless until the very end of the 2nd novel, is one worth reading. Their romance buds slowly, but Jones builds a palpable connection between her protagonist and her love interest, and their mutual respect for one another, as well as their physical chemistry, is refreshing and exciting to read. Even though Liesl is essentially the Goblin King’s captive, there are no unsavory or abusive elements to their relationship, which I definitely appreciated.

Other elements of the novel are equally strong. Liesl’s relationship with her siblings are well explored, and the tension between creator and muse, evident in both her relationship with Der Erlkönig and her brother Josef, is plumbed in profound ways. The novel is a fantasy romance between a woman and a man, but it’s also a story of self-exploration and of artistry. My favorite parts to read were about Liesl struggling to compose because I related to them myself. Overall, Wintersong was a wonderful novel to read, and in my opinion, could have been a perfectly satisfying standalone.

While Wintersong was a dream, Shadowsong is a depressing return to the present. Gone is the magic and romance, replaced instead with anxiety, loneliness, and an overall feeling of foreboding. Shadowsong is the answer to the question about what happens when the credits roll on a romance. And the answer is: a whole lot of moping, indecision, and self-loathing.

On some level, I understand what the sequel is trying to say. Her novel is devoted to the idea that there are no easy happy endings, and that all decisions must be reckoned with. The exploration of that idea, what happens to the girl when she returns from her fantasy land, is a fascinating one, and has been well explored by other authors. But in Shadowsong, nothing much happens. The slow pace of Wintersong becomes glacial in its sequel, and the philosophical musings Jones’ relied on in the first novel turn into self-hating, depressing soliloquies. Even her writing style, beautiful though it is, verges on a tortured form of purple prose.

The sequel is too long and the plot itself is too short. Everything that happens in the 370ish page book could have been condensed into a follow-up novella, or even dispensed with completely. Although some character development is worth reading (primarily concerning Josef), the bulk of the novel is spent re-treading the same themes of the first novel. A dreary mood, combined with a self-loathing tone, and an almost non-existent plot, makes for a poor follow-up to the gorgeous dream of Wintersong.

Final Consensus: The first novel in the duology is everything one could ask for from a fantasy romance. The sequel tries to match the quality of the original, but the dark tone, slow pace, and re-tread of themes make it a slog to read. It’s clear that S. Jae Jones is a remarkable writer and I look forward to her next books, whatever they may be. But if you read the Wintersong series, perhaps it’s best to treat the first book as if it’s the last.

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