Book Review: The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu – A Genre-Blending Tale of Music, Magic, and Quiet, Defiant Feminism

kingdomback_skye

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.

Skye’s review:

My favorite kind of books are the ones that take you completely by surprise. The ones where you don’t realise you’re in too deep until you surface for air and it’s already somehow already the next day. The ones that make you, per the good old YA adage, exhale a breath you didn’t realise you were holding—and friends, the experience of reading this book was both the exhilaration of the dive and the clean, desperate breath of air that always follows after.

The Kingdom of Back returns us to the childhood of the Mozart siblings, both on the precipice of greatness in the world of music. We know one of these names, of course: history remembers and cherishes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But his elder sister, fondly nicknamed Nannerl, is an unknown figure, lost to obscurity. What if I told you that she too was a child prodigy on the harpsichord, that she also dreamt of greatness and legacies? What if, frustrated by a world that refuses to recognise her talent, she makes a dark deal with a faery princeling to realise her ambitions?

These are the questions that Marie Lu invites us to explore in this book, and the questions that kept me rapt until the final measure of the story concluded in a triumphant finale.

On Navigating Magical Worlds and Faerie Deals

Now here is where I must confess something before we delve any deeper into the review: I love fairies. I love everything about their mythology, and how superstitions about them permeate even in parts of the world today. I’ve greatly enjoyed both sinister portrayals of them and the tamer, Disney variety of faith and trust and pixie dust. I picked this book up mostly because it promised a deal with an enigmatic faery princeling. I did end up loving his character and what he came to represent, but this book was also magical in many other ways. 

See, The Kingdom of Back takes place in two starkly different settings: the real world of 18th century Europe, and a magical forgotten kingdom sprung entirely from the imaginations of the Mozart siblings. I loved spending time in both, which I feel is such an impressive feat for a writer! Because how do you balance a mundane world against an obviously magical one? How do you make that transition interesting? The answer to this dilemma is a sense of mystery and wonder that grounds the book and never truly lets you out of its grasp, until you come out the other end of the story with a heart so full you feel like you may burst from sheer satisfaction. This was my first Marie Lu book, and I have definitely been missing out—her descriptive writing was never heavy-handed, and I felt all of Nannerl’s emotions intimately as though they were my own.

On Little Girls that Dream Big, and the Brothers Who Encourage Them

And Nannerl, my sweet, fiery little musician with dreams too big to fit the moulds both her father and the world had already built for her before she even came of age. I feel like we always support in theory the hypothetical ideal of a little girl with big dreams, but we never truly see it portrayed in the stories we tell. At least not the raw, fierce hunger that can occasionally turn into darker shades of jealousy and selfishness and can burn a heart whole. Women aren’t allowed to feel these emotions without turning into the villains in someone else’s story.

But much of this book emerges from Nannerl’s strong yearning to be remembered for the brilliant musician she is, to be adored the way her brother is beginning to be wherever they travel, though she is more competent and has trained for longer. As Nannerl and Wolferl age, she helplessly watches as the world begins to see her as less of a musician in her own right, and more of an accompanist to her younger brother. She hates this, and rightly so. So when an opportunity arrives in the form of a faery from another land offering her the admiration she always dreamed of in exchange for the completion of a few fairytale-like quests, she perseveres. Even when the quests she goes on for her patron become more confusing and darker with each passing moon. 

Even as all this transpires, however, holding Nannerl back from the brink is her relationship with her younger brother. Wolferl adores Nannerl, unequivocally, and Nannerl is also fiercely protective of the bond between them. This imagined kingdom is a secret they both share, and is proof of their intimacy before sexism forces them to both compete for society’s attention. As an older sister myself, the interactions between Nannerl and Wolferl are the closest I’ve ever come to seeing my relationship with my own brother portrayed in a piece of media.

On Feminism, and Being Remembered

And friends, I will be remiss if I don’t admit that part of why I gravitated to this story so very much is because it came to me entirely at the right time in my life, as I’m watching my own brother grow up after having finished secondary school… and contemplating how my mother’s (and my own) sacrifices have given him the privilege to consider options that would’ve been impossible for me when I was his age. How much of our world is built on the back of thankless figures who will never be remembered, because they were the wrong gender or race or sexuality, because they had a disability? What of the millions of people who were denied greatness simply because they weren’t born the right person under the right circumstances?

This is Nannerl’s central struggle in the book. This pull that comes from her desire to leave a legacy and a mark on this world that is uniquely hers, without losing her heart in the process. We watch her strain against the expectations that bind her to a life of fading into the background, while the men in her life take center stage. It’s unfair and it’s infuriating, and the book never shies away from portraying the injustice of it all. As Nannerl uncovers the truth about the magical kingdom she and her brother were whisked away to, she also finds a way to fight back, and to be remembered on her own terms.

MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This book is written for the young women and everyone else who’ve fought to remain in this world, who yearn and yearn for greatness but never find it in a world that refuses to recognise their potential or see them as who they are. This is written for eldest daughters whose dreams have lapsed into thin air and had to watch their younger siblings grow up with everything they didn’t have. If you’ve ever felt like you were playing a losing game simply because fate has deigned to deal you a bad hand to begin with, I hope you find solace in this book. It’s a strange little mix of historical and fantasy, but it has soul, fire, and music in spades, and its heart in the right place.

(If you haven’t, pick up this book anyway because it’s beautifully, lushly written and an important story regardless, okay? Okay.)

Goodreads | Indiebound | BookDepository | Blackwells


Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: Frustrated by a sexist society, Nannerl, the other Mozart sibling, makes a deal with a mysterious faery prince to be remembered by history.

Perfect for: fans of descriptive writing, fantasy reimaginings of marginalised historical figures, and sibling relationships

Think twice if: you don’t enjoy stories with slower build-ups, if you want a realistic historical without the fantastical aspects

Genre: young adult, fantasy, historical

Trigger/content warning: sexism, illness


Let’s Discuss!
  • Have you read any good genre-blending novels that blew your expectations away?
  • We all have books that tell stories of impossible quests and epic tales that we can escape into because they’re so different from our real lives, but what’s a book that has arrived for you personally at the exact time in your life that you needed it?

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu – A Genre-Blending Tale of Music, Magic, and Quiet, Defiant Feminism

  1. I think I’ll order this one from my local indie English bookshop! I saw they have it in their archive, so maybe I can manage to get it shipped to me.
    It’s honestly very cool and I loved your review, as much as I love story about the ones usually forgot by mainstream view of history

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful review for what sounds like a gorgeous book. Your description of the book reminds me of Wintersong by S. Jae Jones which I adored for its dark fae aesthetic mixed with music. I definitely want to check this one out now. Thank you for reviewing!

    Like

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