I really wanted to love Wintersong the way so many readers here evidently do, however, in the 430 pages, I never really connected with either the story or the characters. I kept reading, because this is not a bad book, the language is eloquent, the writing style polished and readable, but the plot - even though eventful - felt sluggish to me. Maybe it is because I am not a musical person (beyond enjoying listening to it), but all the talk of the magic of music, the bagatelles, the sonatas and librettos was a little boring to me. I understand love for a craft - I am a write and painter - but speaking of it as though it is everything there is seems pretentious to me. The setting of southern Germany might have been what drew me in at the start. I am from Germany myself, and the fairy-tale dark forests described in this book are quite familiar, as is the tale of Der Erlkönig (from a Goethe poem). So that was all well and good. I also thought the premise was intriguing, of a sister being abducted and the protagonist, the elder sibling Elisabeth, going to save her. Until this point, the book made be think a little of Uprooted by Naomi Novick, one of my favorites last year. Both blend cultural lore and fantasy with realism and history, and I am drawn to that combination. That is where the similarities ended, for me, though.
Unfortunately, I never warmed to Elisabeth, and I found her romance a little absurd and not one I could root for. I don't want to give away details and spoil the story, but if you have read this book, I'd be curious what you thought of the couple. Agnieszka in Uprooted is kind and brave and thoughtful, whereas I felt Elisabeth came across as whiny and selfish, even if what she ultimately did was not. The Goblin King (Der Erlkönig) was the more intriguing of the two characters, though even he often spoke in clichés and didn't appeal to me as a romantic hero. Sometimes the way he spoke really made me roll my eyes, so maybe I am simply too old or too unromantic to fall for this kind of sparkly chatter (from a man who is the personification of death, after all). Lines such as these just made me cringe, when the desired effect was probably to induce swooning. There is a word in German "fremdschämen", which is very applicable here. It means to be embarrassed for someone else, and in this case, I was embarrassed for the characters and the way the went on.
“If I were a burning smolder, he was the poker, stirring me into flames.”
“His beauty hurt, but it was the pain that made it beautiful.”
“Through him I could play the music I heard in my soul. I was the violin, he was the bow.”
I struggled to get on board with the romance between captive and captor, and in Wintersong it was no different. While it is perhaps not as simple as that, I found the romance irritating. That being said, I didn't dislike the Goblin King. He seemed the most intriguing character, and yet my curiosity was never satisfied in that respect. Another niggle is the fact that Elisabeth constantly reminds readers that she is no beauty, that she was never desired and always underappreciated. I can understand the author's intention in making the hero not your typical stunner, but to mention it again and again felt both redundant and boring. It's 2017, can't we just have a normal looking girl be the hero without it constantly having to be explained. Besides, she might not have been the vision her sister was, but she had all the talent, so there is that...
The pace of the book was surprisingly slow. Usually YA fantasy moves quickly, which was why I thought this would be a fast read, despite it's actual length. I think this is because it is a very exposition heavy book, but the exposition/descriptiveness was the best part, and demonstrated the author's abilities. That being said, I was sometimes quite confused about the actual space in which the characters moved. The Underworld was described more in terms of customs and behaviors than its physical appearance. The world-building in this novel was a little vague for my liking. The first part above ground was well done, with descriptions of the village, market and family home, but the Underground portion was blurry, which in hindsight might have been intentional.
All in all, and despite my above complaints, I didn't hate Wintersong. It just was not what I had hoped for either. Though I did not love this story, the author's writing style is easy to read and I can tell she is a very imaginative person. I won't be reading the sequel to Wintersong, but I would be interested in seeing what else she comes up with in the future.