Official Summary: The last night of the year. Now the days of winter begin and the Goblin King rides abroad, searching for his bride…
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.
My Thoughts: I didn’t grow up watching the ‘80s cult classic, pseudo-children’s movie The Labyrinth, and yet this story still appealed to me. Packaged as a Labyrinth meets “The Goblin Market” (a poem by Christina Rosetti) hybrid retelling, this story brought something new to this latest YA trend: raw sexual tension. While the character development was inconsistent and the romance was at times forced, the atmosphere of this novel more than makes up for it. This novel plays with interesting themes and breaks tropes, all wrapped up in gorgeous language.
As I stated previously, the character development was inconsistent. Liesel would have a revelation or take a step forward, and then in the very next chapter she was back to where she had been before. However, when she did take those steps forward, she displayed strength and freedom. A big theme in this story is sexual freedom, explored almost exclusively through Liesl’s character. Liesl starts this story a virgin; however, unlike with many of the heroines in YA, this is not equated to purity. Liesl simply has not had a sexual experience (outside self-exploration) until she meets the Goblin King. In fact, she is implied to be repressing her sexuality (as well as every other part of her, namely her inner composer) in order to play the role of the dutiful daughter. Liesl is never shamed for wanting to explore her sexuality and is even encouraged, albeit through the suggestion that she let her inner composer out. The connection between music and sexuality is very firmly drawn, suggesting the two facets of Liesl parallel each other.
The concept of identity is also explored via the idea of one’s mask and one’s true self. Liesl comes to terms with the fact that her life as Liesl was merely a role she played, brought on by being shoved to the side or put down outright. Elisabeth, however, is her true self, the self she discovers as she explores her music, sexuality, and secret selfish desires. The Goblin King also plays with this concept, his role as Der Erlkönig a mask and crown and his inner “austere young man” (a term I never hope to see again after reading it for the umpteenth time in this novel). Their romance is based on the connection of all four of these identities.
However, it was hard to get a grip on why exactly these two loved each other. We were told more than shown and their inconsistent character development made it even more difficult to see how their relationship progressed. It does seem to be founded on lust and desire over love, but is something that grows. While this doesn’t necessarily lead to a realistic romance, it is a fairly original concept in YA lit. While many YA couples suffer from instalove, Liesl and the Goblin King seem to instead experience instadesire. (I say desire over lust because I think both characters were still looking for an emotional connection, though the sexual one took precedence at first). And I will give the romance this: when it is good, it is so good. It is sexy and filled with angsty dialogue like, “You are the monster I claim.” Despite a lack of connection with the audience, these moments will still make you swoon.
The best thing by far about this novel, as I said earlier, is the atmosphere. It mixes the fantastical with the creepy, the heartfelt with the sensual so well. The loftier diction helps with this. I also think it helps to read this book as more of a thematic and symbolic story, rather than as character or plot-driven. The world comes to life before your eyes more because of what it suggests than what it shows. I would argue this story is not meant to be taken literal at all, but rather as one giant metaphor.
One complaint I had besides the spotty characterizations and somewhat forced romance is that certain revelations felt placed in the story simply to make it larger than it needed to be. A revelation is made regarding Lisel’s brother that didn’t really add anything to the story and wasn’t foreshadowed very well. Little things like this appear throughout the story, especially in the latter half and hinder the story more than help it.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s not the kind of novel you devote a fan account to or have favorite characters from, but it has powerful themes and an atmosphere that will spirit you away. This is a book I will be thinking about for a long time.
My Rating: 4/5