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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

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All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her mind, her spirit, and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family’s inn, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds―and the mysterious man who rules it―she soon faces an impossible decision. And with time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

Dark, romantic, and powerful, S. Jae-Jones’s Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won’t soon forget.
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Wintersong is one of those books that is getting hype all over the place, in part I suspect because of the way its plot (and indeed aesthetic) recalls the cult classic film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. So, does it stand up to the comparison…?

In some ways, Wintersong is very much in the shadow of its inspirational predecessor. S. Jae-Jones has drawn strongly on the aesthetics of Jim Henson’s puppets and Ellis Flyte and Brian Froud’s costuming of both Jareth and Sarah, such that the Goblin King of the novel very strongly resembles the striking portrayal by David Bowie, including hair and slight androgyny. Similarly, the goblins strike the reader as rather Hensonesque, with the way they are described not recalling specific puppets from the film, but the whole aesthetic of the film. The big difference is in the setting; the late 18th century Bavarian setting of the real world and the very much more subterranean, earthy and claustrophobic setting of the Underground world are new to Wintersong, and Jae-Jones recalls them very clearly to the reader’s eye, not necessarily with precise strokes but with broad, evocative ones.

The other key aesthetic difference is the way Jae-Jones uses music in Wintersong. Music is the driving force of the novel, from Liesl’s music with her brother to the strange interest in her music of the Goblin King; music, its playing, its composition, its style and its quality run as themes throughout the novel, in a very explicit way. The problem here is that evoking something so auditory as music on the page is virtually impossible; different media manage different approaches, from only showing its effects, to putting in the notation in a comic, but describing it with a mix of specific (such as key and tempo) and general really doesn’t work. Instead, what the reader is left with is the sense of missing out on something, instead of Jae-Jones having achieved something.

The plot is a neat little thing of twists and turns, in five sections, each with its own way of turning what came before on its head; Wintersong diverges increasingly far from the Labyrinth template as you get deeper into the book, with an interesting approach to developing romance and love, and what those things can mean, explored by Jae-Jones. The different permutations of relationships in each movement are really well explored, and the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King isn’t a simple, one-dimensional one, it’s a complex, changing thing, that develops alongside their characters across the course of the novel.

That character development is the core of Wintersong; it’s Liesl’s bildungsroman, and also to some extent Josef’s (happily queer!) bildungsroman in the background and enabled by Liesl. The way Jae-Jones handles that character development is subtle and never made explicit, very carefully; the whole book, being told in third person from Liesl’s point of view, shows the development in everything from the narrative voice to what it focuses on, but no one ever talks about growing up. We also see different ways of growing up and accepting oneself, dealt with very neatly.

In the end, Wintersong is let down by itself; if S. Jae-Jones had stuck to the emotional and visual-aesthetic story, this would be a brilliant fairy tale. As it is, she tried to deal with turning the purely auditory into text, and there, she failed, and in doing so, let the whole book down.

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy of the final novel provided by the publisher, Titan Books.

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The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler

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Imagine a world… where cats can talk. Where fairies are snarling, bald beasts with needle-like teeth. Where a huge, dark library hides secrets in its shadows. And dangerous creatures prowl the pages of books. Dare you join Alice on her quest to find a happy ending?
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The Forbidden Library is one of those old examples of an author who writes for adults – in Wexler’s case, full-on musketry-and-magic fantasy – turning to the market of children’s/YA literature. And there the story could have ended, in an ignoble attempt to straddle the river…

But The Forbidden Library doesn’t do that. The Forbidden Library, in fact, has a very similar attitude in many respects to The Shadow Campaign novels; that is, it’s honest, open, up front, doesn’t try to be cleverer than the readers (which doesn’t mean it isn’t clever, only that it isn’t trying to put one over on the reader), and doesn’t talk down to its readers. The Forbidden Library has an excellent narrative voice, and one that is only ever found in children’s and YA literature; confiding, curious, kindly and impish all at once – here without asides to the reader, but with a lot of engagement with them all the same. It works excellently, feeling a little antique, as it should (the novel is set in the late 1920s/early 1930s) but also beautifully relatable.

That also goes for the central character, Alice. The Forbidden Library has a huge secondary cast, but one primary character who we follow throughout the book; Alice, a brilliantly independent, intelligent girl who is still very much also a girl of the early twentieth century. It’s an interesting balance, as Wexler doesn’t wholesale adopt the attitudes of the period – but does note them; Alice’s father is remarked on as being unusual in his treatment of his daughter, for instance. Alice is a character the reader (whatever their gender!) can identify with, the competing impulses of curiosity and rule-following treated in a serious way utterly unlike almost all YA fiction (no rebellious teenager, Alice!).

The rest of the cast are a little flatter, but this is in part because they tend to have little screen time; The Forbidden Library isn’t interested in Geryon, Mr Black, Isaac, Ashes or the rest per se, particularly, only in Alice. That doesn’t mean they’re dull characters; each is interestingly written and unique, with a personality of their own, it’s just that for the most part those personalities are rather simpler than the complex one Alice has. Isaac comes closest, with his layered deceptions and ability to play on Alice’s sympathy, and Ashes is an unbelievably fun companion, even by the standards of talking cats, but on the whole they’re simply less interesting because Wexler is less interested in them.

Of course, a young adult book, and arguably a fantasy novel in general, is nothing without a rollicking plot; on that score, The Forbidden Library is perhaps a little weaker. While individual episodes are fantastic, engaging, interesting, and indeed suspenseful, and while the reader can really be caught up in them, there are also frustrating lacunae where one feels Wexler forgot that the intermediate stages have to grab the reader too; getting from episode to episode can at times be like fighting through a swamp, while the action itself is more like running a properly maintained track. This uneveness does detract from the book, but the track is definitely worth the swamp, even if it does all leave one feeling a little like one’s read a three-hundred page prologue, with a lot of set up and very little payoff.

The Forbidden Library is not flawless, and is very binarist and heteronormative compared with Wexler’s epic fantasy, but as far as YA fantasy goes, you could do worse – for readers young or old – than this rather fun work.

To Spin a Darker Stair by Faith Mudge and Catherynne M. Valente, illus. Kathleen Jennings

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Forget everything you think you know about fairytales…
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Tehani Wessely of Fablecroft Press is one of the number of Australian editors producing really interesting work… that unfortunately isn’t seen enough by the wider world. To Spin A Darker Stair is an excellent example of how fairy stories can be told in a revisionist manner, and come out of the process truly fascinatingly.

Both writers in this slim volume have taken a traditional fairy story villain and reworked them through a feminist lens; the witches in Rapunzel and in Hansel and Gretel. Each takes the stock character from their fairytale and explains them; not content with the simple “evil witch”, To Spin A Darker Stair instead takes the Maleficent approach: seen from their own angle, and with more information, these characters move from unsympathetic to tragic figures whose bad ends we mourn, rather than celebrating. The recasting also, of necessity, recasts the roles of some of those around them; while in Valente’s ‘A Delicate Architecture’ only the witch is affected and Hansel and Gretel’s arrival only comes at the end of the story, let alone their interactions with the witch, Mudge completely recasts Rapunzel into a much darker, more interesting figure and her family in an altogether grimmer, tragic and arguably Greek light in ‘Oracle’s Tower’.

The way these fairy tales work is by their magical feel; both Mudge and Valente capture the feel and idea of ‘fairy tale’ excellently, combining the impossible magical whimsy with cultural tropes and ideas to create a story that really sticks. To Spin A Darker Stair contains two very poetic, very lyrical writers whose work can’t be discussed without discussing their style; it flows like a folk tale, rather than feeling like a story written down. It has the lilting rhythm of something that has been spoken time and again, worn smooth by tongue after tongue wrapping around its parts. However, ‘A Delicate Architecture’ suffers from a certain repetitious slowness and arguably a degree of obviousness; while ‘Oracle’s Tower’ uses its tragic inevitably as an inexorable, oncoming thing that gives the story a mythic power, Valente loses that rather, as she seems to try to gain that power while not quite successfully achieving it.

‘Oracle’s Tower’ alone makes this volume worth buying, but bring in Wessely’s introduction and ‘A Delicate Architecture’ and I recommend it not just to fans of fairytales but all readers everywhere.

Any Other Name by Emma Newman

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Cathy has been forced into an arranged marriage with William Iris – a situation that comes with far more strings than even she could have anticipated, especially when she learns of his family’s intentions for them both.

Meanwhile, Max and the gargoyle investigate the Agency – a mysterious organisation that appears to play by its own twisted rules, none of them favourable to Society.

And in Mundanus, Sam has discovered something very peculiar about his wife’s employer – something that could herald disaster for everyone on both sides of the Split Worlds.
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I read the first Split Worlds novel a few months back, and reviewed Between Two Thorns at the time; so when I saw Any Other Name in a Waterstones for the first time last week, I knew I had to pick it up, and so I did!

This review will, inevitably, contain SPOILERS for Between Two Thorns, and contains a SPOILER for a major element of Any Other Name. Also TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of rape.

Any Other Name is in some ways weaker, and other respects interestingly stronger, than its predecessor. The biggest weakness is in the plot; while Between Two Thorns saw Newman introduce a number of different plotlines, they remained closely intertwined by more than just just casual interconnection, whereas Any Other Name follows three different plots, which are linked by friendships or relationships between characters who therefore appear in more than one plotline, but all the same seem completely disconnected. It feels rather like a trio of novels condensed down into one, or like it’s setting up these strands to come together in a dramatic way in the next book; if so, some clearer indication of how they link up would have been rather useful. As it is, none comes to any kind of satisfactory resolution and some are only really getting their feet under them – especially Sam’s plotline – as the novel ends!

Character, though, is where Newman excels. Any Other Name boasts a huge cast, from outcast Rosas through the central characters to Max’s boss Ekstrand and his entourage into more general Society; and each and every character feels incredibly real, feels powerfully well fleshed out. They each have individuality, agency, emotions, reactions to events around them, societally-bred biases which they either embrace or work against, and a core personality that really stands out; Newman makes even brief appearances something much more solid purely by putting some spark into her characters. This is notable especially in two cases, those of Will and Cathy. The latter’s rebellion against her family and society is put to the test, both in kind and in its assumptions, as the novel continues and her latent feminism shifts its focus.

Any Other Name sees more interesting developments on Will’s part, though; he is both humanised and hardened as the novel goes on. Married to someone who refuses to accept society’s strictures, and forced into a new prominence by his family, Will is assailed on multiple sides… and the novel asks us to forgive him the unforgiveable: under orders from his Patron, Will uses magic to rape Cathy. That this is part of a pattern of him increasingly understanding her and her demands on him is notable, as is his guilt over it; but Newman’s presentation is still strange. It’s clearly a use of magic designed to attract Cathy to Will, and thus render the sex nonconsensual, and Will feels guilty about it, but the novel seems strangely quiet on how wrong and abominable this action is, and contrasts it with simply using force to rape one’s wife; partly that’s about Will’s socialisation, but I’m really hoping we see Cathy realise what happened and see her reactions to it in future books.

There’s also a problem of fridging here. Any Other Name sees not just one but three women killed off (or removed from the picture, at least) to motivate men around them; in a series that started with some fantastic challenges to patriarchal narratives and Victorian (gender) roles and values, this is deeply disappointing, and one wonders if Newman could have kickstarted these plot elements in other ways. Indeed, one rather feels she could have, even simply by making one of the attacks more abortive than it was.

In the end, Any Other Name is a good book, beset by problems of its own creation; however, memories of Between Two Thorns give me hope Newman will have addressed some of these in All Is Fair.