This is the third review in my ‘Buzzfeed Recommends Series’ where I read and review all the books Buzzfeed recommended in their article: ’15 Brand-New Young Adult Novels That Are Just So, So, Good’. You can read the summary for that here.
‘Kingdom of Back’ by Marie Lu is a YA historical novel with some fantasy elements that focuses on the story of Nannerl Mozart, Worfel Mozart’s older sister, and her childhood with her brother. The book currently has an average rating of 3.81 on Goodreads.
“All men are villains. He was afraid, I realised, and I wonder now if it was because he his proclamation made him a villain too.”
This story is very much Nannerl’s, it’s not her story told from her famous younger brother’s perspective or any other man, it’s very much her story told by Nannerl. It was an engaging and fascinating read, I learnt so much about a female figure whose been erased and forgotten by history – who never even had the chance to be remembered, and what a crying shame that is. The book focuses on themes of family, what it means to be remembered and also the forgotten women in history.
We first meet Nannerl when she is nine and by the last chapter she’s eighteen, she obviously grows quite a lot in our eyes in this time and becomes a passionate young woman, also brave and courageous. She’s a complex character, whose neither all good nor all bad and the different aspects of her are particularly explored within her relationship with her brother but also with Hyacinth. Not only is she passionate about her music, she’s very talented too and clearly smarter than many gave her credit for. Whilst Nannerl does make mistakes in this, she is very young and naive when she makes them, but also she does grow from this – she doesn’t continue to make the same mistakes over and over again but she learns instead. Overall, she’s a great YA heroine as even though she has her faults she’s not scared to go after what she wants, but she also grows to learn the consequences of that and acts accordingly.
Most of the focus on relationships in this book is on family relationships, particularly that between Nannerl and Worfel. There are some hints at romantic relationships, but it’s usually bound together with the idea it’s Nannerl’s duty to marry and become a loyal, dependable wife – an idea that isn’t very romantic to many readers nor Nannerl. It was refreshing to read about a YA female protagonist who didn’t spend her time focused on possible romances or boys, and whilst she has crushes it is no more than what most straight teenage girls have, and it is never the focal point of the story. Instead the focus is on a sibling relationship which is extremely well written, they are co-conspirators at times and at others enemies, but they always find their way back to each other.
Through the exploration of family relationships in this, Marie Lu also explored the idea of what was expected of a woman in Nannerl’s times, and how she was constrained by society. It didn’t matter Nannerl was as talented as her younger brother, she could never do what she was born to do because she was a woman. Nannerl does fight against this for a long time and it’s a very commendable fight, some may argue that she gave in by the end of the novel by realising she could never be the famous composer she wanted to be – but her brother would. However, I don’t see it as giving in. Nannerl recognises she is trapped in a society where she can never take on any other role than the one they want her to take on, but she discovers she can still do good in that role; her and the Queen of the Kingdom of Back talk about how from the position of a wife of a wealthy man she can help others less fortunate than her and still put good into the world. Whilst it’s not the immortality that comes with fame that Nannerl dreamed of as a composer, it is certainly more than just ‘giving in’, she is still promising to do something with her life that doesn’t just benefit her.
The real heartbreak of this novel is not Hyacinth’s betrayal or Nannerl’s realisation she can never do what she dreams of, it’s the realisation of how much great art we’ve missed out on because that person didn’t fit society’s expectation of what an artist should look like or be. Nannerl was never allowed to bring her music to the world because she was a woman, but her many more weren’t allowed to for the same reason? Or how many couldn’t because they weren’t white? Or because they weren’t rich enough to travel around the royal courts of Europe? It’s a heartbreaking realisation, historically we will have pushed so many people away from their rightful places in the world of art, music and literature because they were not what we wanted or expected. In a way, it still goes on to this day.
The writing style in this was beautiful, Marie Lu did an excellent job at describing the Kingdom of Back and making it sound stunning. At no point was I bored of the descriptions of scenery, I wanted to learn more about it so I could see it in my mind- and what a beautiful world Lu created. However if you are a fan of Lu be warned this is very different from anything else I’ve read by her – it’s not her usual style.
If you read this I would recommend you read the author’s note at the end as it’s very illuminating. It was fascination to learn it’s suspected some of Mozart’s work was influenced by Nannerl’s, and it’s possible Nannerl even composed some of the work Mozart is credited for. It’s also the author’s notes that ties together a lot of the themes in the book.
The biggest criticism I could levy on this book is that at times the pacing can be quite slow, particularly at the start. Also, some plotlines that weren’t fantasy based or didn’t involve the Kingdom of Back could be repetitive, however that is reflective of what Nannerl’s life would have been like at the time.
Overall, this a very good YA historical novel and one I would recommend. It’s illuminating and poses some very good ideas on what we as society, and the whole world, may have missed out on because of discrimination and predjudice. How many great artists, composers and writers have we never heard of because we never gave them the chance to speak?
This is the third book in my ‘Buzzfeed Recommends’ series and the only one I’ve liked so far. It’s given me a little more hope for the rest of the series and I’m looking forward to seeing what other gems I can find on this list.