Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones
Liesl has always been the dutiful daughter. She gives up her dreams of being a famous composer to support her little brother’s budding career as a violinist. While her beautiful sister Käthe primps, plain Liesl works tirelessly to keep her parents’ inn running despite her father’s alcoholism. She has all but given up on half-remembered childhood fancies of playing music with the Goblin King. But after Käthe is abducted by goblins, to save her sister and the world Liesl agrees to marry the Goblin King and never leave his realm, the Underground, as she fades and then dies.
Drawing on fairy tales and Romanticism, Wintersong is a sensuous and dramatic story of love, lust, and self-discovery. Jae-Jones’ rich language and dreamy imagery set a dark and amorous tone. While the first half of the book reads as a romantic adventure, the second half gives itself over entirely to romance and internal angst. Liesl contends with a tangle of conflicted emotions and questions about who she is and who she could be. Magic, mystery, and multiple steamy sex scenes add intrigue, but a meandering and sometimes confusing plot may frustrate some readers.
There is certainly an audience for a book like Wintersong, and it is a strong example of its genre and style. It’s a particular taste, though, and its meandering pace and high emotion don’t do much to invite readers outside this niche.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
After his brother Shawn is murdered, Will knows The Rules: No crying. No snitching. Revenge. So he takes his brother’s gun and gets on the elevator of his building at the 7th floor to go kill the man who he is convinced killed his brother. On each floor, a new person gets on the elevator: each one a ghost from his past, killed by gang violence. In tense and nimble verse, Reynolds recounts their stories, and Will’s struggle with whether to stick to The Rules, or take a different path that might end the cycle of violence.
This is a book that sucked me in so deeply, coming out of it was like waking from a dream. But Long Way Down is, in truth, far too real. In affecting verse, the book shines a light on the plight of young people caught up in gang violence. It is both empathetic and challenging. Beneath Will’s protestations that he is doing what he has to do is the ever-present whisper, “But do you have to, really?” As Reynolds skillfully illustrates, this is a deceptively simple question with no easy answer.
The book’s length and relevance make it accessible to a wide swath of readers, particularly black urban youth who have been underrepresented in YA literature. The ending packs a punch that will leave you breathless.
And the winner is…
Winner: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Long Way Down is possibly my favorite book of the year. It grabbed me and, months after I first read it, has yet to let go, still popping into my head at random moments. It is impossible to encounter someone else who has read this book and resist launching into a fervent discussion of its ending. It is a brutally honest and thought-provoking look at a timely subject that should be immensely valuable to readers who are in situations like Will’s, and eye-opening to readers who aren’t.
I would certainly recommend Wintersong to the right reader, but I would see many finding it boring or overdramatic. I also have a few concerns about how closely it links self-discovery to a relationship, particularly one with major power imbalances and a conflicted sex life.
Wintersong and Long Way Down both feature skilled, imaginative writing. But while escapist stories have an important place in literature, it is hard to compare one with something so gut-wrenching, timely, and life-or-death urgent as Long Way Down. Jason Reynolds continues to astound with the quality and volume of hard-hitting books he gifts to young readers.