Stolen Songbird, by Danielle L. Jensen
Okay, no, this is a professional book review, I am a professional adult…!
The eponymous Stolen Songbird is Cécile de Troyes, a young woman kidnapped and stolen away to a kingdom buried under the Forsaken Mountain to fulfil a prophecy by marrying their prince and breaking the curse on their people. The issue here, of course, being that the kingdom is called Trollus… because they are trolls. For real!
But they’re not the trolls you’re thinking of. These people are beautiful and powerful and magical, but, trapped as they are under a witch’s curse, their society has become dangerously factionalised and fractured. They rely on humans for goods and services–and they need new people to marry and have children with, of course–but anyone with human blood is enslaved and scorned because of their lack of magic. Cécile’s new husband, Tristan, heir to Trollus, just happens to be a member of the faction that thinks that the kingdom needs to be reformed before it splinters entirely. Is their leader, in fact. Cécile, has to navigate these treacherous political waters and make a place for herself in this world while figuring out just how exactly she is supposed to break the curse… and whether she should break it at all.
And yeah: then there’s that whole husband thing to deal with.
I seriously lack the superlatives to express how much I adored this book. An intelligently-written romantic fantasy with an engaging moral conflict at the heart of the story, original and creative worldbuilding, political intrigue, an enigmatic and appealing hero, and, best of all, a quick-witted and strong-willed heroine who grabs your affection and doesn’t let go? You had me at hello. When I was reading it, all I could think of were the fantasies that I grew up reading in the 90s, but with a few exceptions from authors like Sherwood Smith and McKinley and Stevermer and Wrede I can’t think of any books that pull off all those elements so successfully, which made me realise that Stolen Songbird is really the kind of book I wished I had to read when I was growing up. I really think today’s YA audience is incredibly lucky to have such an abundance of diverse fantasy novels from authors like Cashore and Bardugo and Marchetta… and Jensen has definitely earned herself a place alongside those names with this debut. I will be watching her work avidly from now on.
(And she’s Canadian!)
Now to comment on some craft-related bits (maybe-spoilery):
The inclusion of a handful of chapters from Tristan’s point of view were unnecessary. I’m pretty lenient about slipping between POVs, but I think they should be given fairly equal narrative space, and the few bits of story we got from his perspective could well have been worked into other parts of Cécile’s narration. For the most part those chapters could be cut entirely without sacrificing any plot, and I think that’s kind of the tipping point when it comes to editing out material, you know? Though I appreciate wanting to get into Tristan’s headspace, since I enjoyed being there–it just felt unbalanced.
But that’s not really a big deal. The biggest thing that has me hung up is… the word ‘troll’. It just DOESN’T WORK. It feels so wrong. And I know that there are in-text reasons for it and it kind of all makes sense in the end (or… well, it will when the sequel comes out, I presume) but there has GOT to be a synonym for ‘scary mysterious magical creature’ that is not ‘fairy’ or ‘fay’ since that’s right out for Plot Reasons but is at LEAST better than TROLL. I would even take gnome? At least they have the underground theme going on–and Tolkien’s (high, Noldorin, badass and pretty and awesome) elves were originally called gnomes, so I feel like I’m on the right path here. Like, yeah, garden gnomes, they’re potatoey and twee, we don’t have the best and flashiest cultural conception of ’em, but… it’s better than trolls. It just is. I just fixated on this aspect because it required such a cognitive shift for me to see the characters as the author wanted me to see them–not monstrous–and I recognise that overcoming this barrier mirrors Cécile’s journey for the reader but it just tangled me up a lot in my head, because then I kept thinking about how much it didn’t fit, so it kept pulling me out of the narrative. And sorry but ‘Trollus’ doesn’t work either. You need one less syllable or one more syllable. It feels too wrong on the tongue–I kept want to twist it to ‘Troilus’ (of ‘And Cressida’), and that became a thorn at the back of my mind because of the surname ‘de Troyes’. Whatever. Okay. Whatever! Semantics! It was a hiccup when it came to engaging me in the text but it is just that–a hiccup–and not a major ish, having finished the book and being able to predict the arc, so I’ll sit on my hands on this one.
(Speaking of predicting where the arc is going–okay, we have a young French beauty with a heritage of sorcery and singing [and sorcerous singing, i.e. she exerts her will through singing], vague ominous mentions of dragons, blood magic… if you are also thinking Melusine, then I feel very vindicated. There was a single in-text reference to Melusine and when I got to that point I felt even more vindicated. I may have crowed with delight. Now, I’m not sure if it’s going to go anywhere, but it definitely was a satisfying thing to feel the worldbuilding round out in that moment, you know?)
Anyway, minor nitpicks aside, this remains a five-star review. Oh my God, read it. I’m so sad that I’m not reading it anymore because it’s over. I can’t wait to read it again when it’s released in April and I can have my own hard copy. I can’t wait to read the next book. You stole my heart, Danielle L. Jensen. I hope you’re happy.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley.