Author: Danielle L. Jensen
Rating: 3 Stars
Release Date: April 1st, 2014
Objectively speaking, Stolen Songbird is an excellent debut. A tale of a young girl with vivid red hair and the voice of an angel, kidnapped and sold to trolls, meant to break an age-old curse - and fails. Cecile, our protagonist, is rebellious and bitter, obviously, but she does not allow her confinement to dampen her spirits. Instead, she takes it upon herself to discover the inner workings of the kingdom she finds herself in, details of the curse that have confined the trolls into their cave, and secrets her husband, the Crown Prince, jealously guards. While trolls cannot lie, they are deceptive creatures and the trust that forms, gradually, between Cecile and Tristan is precious.
From the beginning to the end, Stolen Songbird is a work of art, exquisitely plotted and impeccably timed. Whether it be the slow-burn romance that unravels between Tristan and Cecile, one full of confusion as neither truly knows whether or not to trust one another. Or whether it be the unveiling of a hidden rebellion, one that challenges the monarchy rule of the troll kingdoms, lead by Prince Tristan himself. Or even if it is simply world-building information, Jensen approaches her debut novel with an analytic mind, ticking off the boxes expertly.
Moreover, Jensen masterfully avoids typical tropes, all too overused in YA. From her distinct lack of slut-shaming, even when a beautiful troll girl, Anais, shares a close relationship with Tristan, to her development of Cecile's character, Stolen Songbird is pleasantly devoid of love triangles and Mary Sues. Each secondary character is given a back story and Cecile, instead of falling for her husband's good looks and sharp wit, cleverly forges an alliance with him that turns into friendship and, eventually, into love. Although Cecile loathes her presence in the troll kingdom and desperately wants to return home to her family and best friend, Sabine, she recognizes the futility of this early on. Nevertheless, while searching for a means of escape, she also manages to ingratiate herself into the lifestyle at the palace where she resides, making herself an active player in this game of politics and deception instead of a mere pawn.
Ironically, however, the downfall of Stolen Songbird lies in its veneer of perfection. For, truly, it is perfect. It contains strong world-building, an intriguing premise, and a swoon-worthy romance to boot. Despite these positive qualities, though, it was difficult to overlook the fact that these characters, that Cecile and Tristan, were all just a little too good to be true. You see, romance isn't merely about time and place or the gradual development of feelings. It's also about sacrifice and overcoming hurdles; it's about falling in love despite flaws, not merely because they do not exist. Tristan is not only the secret leader of an underground rebellion against the discriminatory rule of his own father, but he is also a human sympathizer and, moreover, despite the fact that he must maintain a facade of hatred for Cecile, he goes out of his way to write her notes or shower her with meaningful gifts. Cecile, too, is accepting of Tristan's nature, gently waiting for him to trust her as she grows to trust him, and her involvement within the political sphere is brilliantly executed, leaving no room for true character growth.
Cecile grows emotionally, maturing as she must learn to acclimate quickly into a new society. And Tristan, additionally, changes after being bound to Cecile, finding hidden depths of compassion that surprise him. What neither of these characters do, however, is stumble or make mistakes. Admittedly, they perform sacrifices for one another out of the love and devotion they hold for each other and while that may be one form of error, it doesn't birth growth. It doesn't inspire regret, though it causes pain, and winds up contributing to the plot. What I'm getting at is this: I don't remember characters because of their accomplishments. I remember them because of the times they stumble, the times they fall, and the times they pick themselves back up. I remember Harry best from The Order of the Phoenix where his rashness and anger lead to unforgivable consequences. And then I remember the fact that he never gave us, despite the loss in his life, and that he grew to mature from the errors he committed; that he accepted his flaws and moved on in life. And a fantasy novel is, I feel, where the severity of flaws and consequences can be best explored.
In a contemporary setting, the largest errors that characters commit are emotional ones: holding themselves responsible for the death of a loved one, using sarcasm and bitterness to push away those around them, etc. In fantasy, however, the magnitude of these disasters know no bounds. Stolen Songbird fails to push its characters to their utmost capacity, peeling back layer upon layer to their personas. Although I know the distinct character traits of Cecile and Tristan, they remain forgettable individuals for their struggles have not been cemented in my mind. Of course, take my criticism with a grain (or a pinch, really) of salt. After all, I am returning from a stint of Adult Fantasy, which is far more satisfying in its scope, and having reading The Hollow Kingdom last year, a novel whose premises is similar to Stolen Songbird though its characters find ways to transcend the barriers of their flaws, I cannot help but compare this debut and find it lacking.
Ultimately, though, for fans of YA Fantasy, Stolen Songbird will likely tick off all the right boxes. For me, that last thread of emotional connectivity never became cemented and the rather winding quality of this tale - it really can be much shorter - forced my mind to wander a time too many. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that this trilogy is on its way to becoming the next big hit among readers worldwide. Just ignore me while I sit alone in the corner secluded for the black sheeps of this world.