The Kingdom of Back

It was March 2020 when I became enchanted by The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu. Book of the Month offered it as one of their add-on selections that month, and although it hadn’t previously been on my radar, it immediately went right into my box. Finally, just after reading another book about Mozart (The Mozart Code by Rachel McMillan), I decided to continue the theme by turning to this captivating novel.

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu
Series
AudienceYA
GenreHistorical Fiction; Fantasy
SettingAustria; France; Germany; England; Netherlands
Number of Pages313
Format I ReadHardcover (BOTM)
Original Publication DateMarch 3, 2020

Official Summary

Two siblings. Two brilliant talents. But only one Mozart.

Born with a gift for music, Nannerl Mozart has just one wish—to be remembered forever. But even as she delights audiences with her masterful playing, she has little hope she’ll ever become the acclaimed composer she longs to be. She is a young woman in 18th century Europe, and that means composing is forbidden to her. She will perform only until she reaches a marriageable age—her tyrannical father has made that much clear.

And as Nannerl’s hope grows dimmer with each passing year, the talents of her beloved younger brother, Wolfgang, only seem to shine brighter. His brilliance begins to eclipse her own, until one day a mysterious stranger from a magical land appears with an irresistible offer. He has the power to make her wish come true—but his help may cost her everything.

In her first work of historical fiction, #1 New York Times bestselling author Marie Lu spins a lush, lyrically-told story of music, magic, and the unbreakable bond between a brother and sister.

Review

There are three things I love in books: an element of music, a dash of magic, and a new look at a known story or figure, especially if it includes a feminist twist. The Kingdom of Back offers all three. Set in the 1760s, it’s told from the perspective of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna (Nannerl for short). A talented musician and composer in her own right, here we see what it was like growing up as a pair of child prodigies, traveling Europe together, and sharing a secret world of wonderment and danger.

The Kingdom of Back starts in late 1759 when Nannerl is 8 and her younger brother, affectionately known as Woferl, is almost 4. Despite her skill playing the clavier (a clavichord, harpsichord, or fortepiano), Nannerl never feels that she lives up to her father’s expectations. When her younger brother quickly and easily takes to playing the clavier, too – and even starts composing very soon after – Nannerl starts to feel jealous. It clashes with her genuine love for young Woferl.

Already, Nannerl longs to be seen, to be loved for her talent, to be remembered and immortalized by her music. It’s a wish she makes, but then a fantastical boy named Hyacinth offers to make her dreams come true if she helps him in return. Thus she and Woferl are whisked away to what they call the Kingdom of Back, a magical world where everything is backwards. There are two moons in the night sky, the trees are upside down, and the ocean water is warm against the white sand of the beach. Periodically over the next decade, Nannerl (and sometime Woferl, too) are visited by Hyacinth and taken to the Kingdom of Back to complete a dangerous task for him. He rewards Nannerl by helping her in the real world, where she can attain more respect and recognition even as Woferl starts to outshine her.

Throughout the novel, it’s never entirely clear whether the Kingdom of Back is real or just make believe between the two siblings. Is this novel fantasy or magical realism? The lines are blurred, because while Nannerl and Woferl seem to both have the same experiences, she also often refers to these visits as dreams. When illness strikes, it’s portrayed as a punishment from the Kingdom of Back, and appeasing Hyacinth is the only way to regain health. Or is all of this the imagination of children, with no real affect on their actual lives? Whatever the case, this is a novel that is dreamlike and beautiful. Marie Lu’s writing is gorgeous and breathtaking, both ethereal and filled with memorable passages. Some may say the pacing is slow in The Kingdom of Back, but for me it works perfectly. It maintains the enchanting and dreamy quality of the prose.

I enjoyed getting to know the Mozart family. Woferl is a sweet and loving child here. While he’s fragile and prone to serious illnesses, he’s also courageous, charming, and mischievous. He looks up to his big sister and champions her in composing her own music, despite what the world may think. Nannerl is the dutiful and responsible one, looking after her little brother and genuinely caring for him, but also envious of him and how much their father seems to prefer Woferl. Nannerl craves her dad’s praise, and she resents how different her life path will be: she’ll be a wife and mother while Woferl will get to go on playing and composing music, beloved by all.

The Kingdom of Back offers a new look at the Mozarts, and it’s a feminist perspective. Nannerl wishes she could compose, but women then weren’t allowed to. She wishes she could choose her own life path, but her role was to eventually marry and have children. The novel depicts the severe limitations women faced back then. I wish Nannerl – in real life – had been as revered and remembered as her brother ultimately was. But alas, I never knew about her before reading The Kingdom of Back and her compositions have been lost to time.

Marie Lu mainly writes YA books, and indeed, The Kingdom of Back is categorized as such. However, this is a novel that feels timeless and ageless. In some ways it feels like an adult book, just written about children. It also feels like an old fable, largely due to the simple quests Nannerl and Woferl complete at Hyacinth’s request. Like the tales the Mozart siblings conjure up, the novel reads like a bedtime story, the kind that stays with you into adulthood and is passed on to future generations.

Final Thoughts

The Kingdom of Back is a beautiful and ethereal novel about a woman, lost to history but reclaiming her own story and sense of worth. Nannerl Mozart is a compelling and earnest character, filled with conflicting emotions and undervalued talent. It’s a unique story that offers a new look at the Mozarts through a lens of dreamy magic.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

About the Author

Marie Lu

Marie Lu is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Legend trilogy and The Young Elites trilogy. She graduated from the University of Southern California and jumped into the video game industry, working for Disney Interactive Studios as a Flash artist. Now a full-time writer, she spends her spare time reading, drawing, playing Assassin’s Creed, and getting stuck in traffic. She lives in Los Angeles, California (see above: traffic), with one husband, one Chihuahua mix, and two Pembroke Welsh corgis.

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