The Kingdom of Back

The Kingdom of Back was written by Marie Lu and first published in 2020. It is a historical fantasy novel which focuses on the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl. The story stands alone, so you don’t have to read any of the author’s previous work to fully appreciate it.

Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart lives to perform, but even as a young girl she knows that her days are numbered. Her skills at the clavier will only seem remarkable while she is still a child. Once she is grown, she will be expected to give it all up in order to get married and start a family. Things become worse still when her younger brother, Wolferl, reveals a prodigious talent for composition. How can she hope to be remembered when Wolferl’s star eclipses her own?

As they travel Europe to perform before nobles and Emperors, Nannerl and Wolferl amuse themselves by telling stories of a magical world called the Kingdom of Back. This is a world where rare edelweiss bloom everywhere and trees grow upside down. It’s not long before strange things begin to appear in the night and the Kingdom of Back seems more real. Although Nannerl at first believes she is dreaming, she starts to doubt this when a Faerie Princeling named Hyacinth reveals himself to her.

Hyacinth advises that he is Nannerl’s guardian and wishes to grant her deepest wish. In order to do so, she must compete three tasks for him. At first, Nannerl is excited to help to him the Princeling, but Wolferl seems to grow weaker with every task that she completes. It is not long before she is forced to question exactly what Hyacinth really wants. Who is he, and what will happen if she completes her final task?

The Kingdom of Back is a very difficult novel to review, in part because it was not what I was expecting. The story tells the tale of Nannerl Mozart (a historical figure that I did not even know existed until I picked up this novel), who was an incredibly talented pianist who lived in the shadow of her younger brother. The author’s note does make clear that this story is largely speculative, as very little is known about Nannerl, yet the novel is still an utterly compelling read. It’s a deeply metaphorical and somewhat depressing portrayal of a girl’s hopeless ambition, at a time when a woman’s only prospect was to be married off.

The fantasy elements of The Kingdom of Back were beautifully written. Their integration into the tale was so subtle that it made it difficult to determine if the Kingdom of Back actually existed or if it was just a childish daydream. The way that Nannerl travelled to this world reminded me a lot of Pan’s Labyrinth as the transition between the two realms was seamless, allowing Hyacinth to frequently walk unseen into significant moments of her life. While the Kingdom of Back was pretty typical fantasy fare – a world of faeries, monsters and magic – Lu added her own unique spin to this to create an ethereal twilit world that was truly unforgettable.

The plot of The Kingdom of Back was very slow-burning and so it did take me a little while to get into the novel. My biggest issue with this book was that the stakes never really felt that high. Nannerl’s life was a whirl of performances and practices, with very little of the story taking place away from her music room. Although her thoughts were frequently with Hyacinth and the Kingdom of Back, her journeys to this magical place were actually few and far between. It was not really until the novel’s climax that the story truly picked up its pace and became utterly compelling.

The ending of the story is somewhat bittersweet, as you can probably imagine. The fact that Wolfgang Mozart’s name has endured, while Nannerl’s has not, will give readers some idea of the direction that this story must take. However, the climax is still very satisfying. While Nannerl may not achieve the immortality that she sought, the story presents an incredibly moving coming of age tale where Nannerl is given chance to come to accept who she is, and take solace in her place in society. This is a very different to the typical young adult moral, where a character tries their hardest and succeeds against the odds, yet did give the novel a more realistic feel as necessitated by the 18th Century Austrian setting.

As you might expect, the strongest aspect of The Kingdom of Back was its characters. Although Lu admits to taking some liberties with the history facts, she succeeds in developing the mysterious character of Nannerl Mozart into a compelling heroine. The novel allows the reader to get inside Nannerl’s head, truly experiencing the complex way that she torn between family duty and ambition. As Nannerl fights to be remembered only to be betrayed by her loved ones at every turn, I really grew to pity her. Knowing that her brilliance has been lost to history only made her struggle all the more heart-breaking.

Although The Kingdom of Back is Nannerl’s story, the supporting cast is equally as strong. I loved the way that Nannerl’s relationship with her other family members evolved as the story progressed. Although the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Back seemed simple, it soon became clear that Hyacinth’s tale of a ruined kingdom and girl imprisoned in a tower was symbolic of Nannerl’s own internal conflict. Her complex feelings towards her strict father (a man who is willing to risk his children’s health in order to cement their fame) and innocent yet gifted brother. Although not all of Nannerl’s relationships were positive, they all still grew and developed organically as the story progressed.

Apologies for the short review, but I feel that I have said enough. All in all, I was really impressed by The Kingdom of Back. While the plot was very slow, it presented a compelling coming of age story that was filled with beautiful prose and complex characters. This was the first novel by Lu that I have ever read and I will be certainly looking to read more in the future.

The Kingdom of Back can be purchased as a Hardback, eBook and Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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