Listen, I understand what Marie Lu intended to do with this story, to write about a forgotten sister to one of the greatest composer in our history and give a voice to someone who was silenced simply due to her gender. I get it and I support it. However, and given how I’d never read Lu prior to this, I don’t think she was the right author to tell this story, mostly because she didn’t understand what she was doing or writing. A lot of the time I kept wanting things to make sense, practically begging for things to make sense, and it felt like either her editor or Lu herself never stopped to think that maybe she needed to tinker with it more before publishing it. It felt like I was reading a first or maybe even a second draft of The Kingdom of Back and there’s no way this could possibly be the final version. It’s not strong enough to be a final version.
My biggest qualm with this book is the overall lack of structure. That’s all you need to know; there was absolutely zero structure to this story and I have no idea how it went through so many drafts, passes, editors and copyeditors, and no one realized that this book has no structure or even a backbone. And given how this is supposed to be historical fiction, having a good structure is probably the most important thing to ensure the book has, and yet. When earning a degree in history (which I have), you’re quick to learn that timelines and dates are more or less your entire lifeline and as long as you know your timeline, you understand what points you’re working with, you can remember and understand what it is you’re learning. And if you’re writing a historical fiction, you NEED a proper timeline. You need to identify what time you’re starting with, what time you’re going through, and ultimately what time you finish your story on. Did Marie Lu do that? No, no she did not. Not only am I frustrated but I’m a little insulted, to think that she could ignore something so important. There is never any kind of indication of the passage of time, other than the glossed over “several weeks later” or the passage of seasons, and all of a sudden Nannerl has turned 16 when you’re sure she’s been 12 this entire time. You never know how old the children are until Lu thinks it’s necessary to indicate, giving the book its bare minimum of structure, and it’s upsetting. If you’re writing a historical fiction but don’t stop to think about the actual historical timeline and indulge your reader on that exact history, then you don’t deserve to be touching history let alone writing historical fiction.
The plot, like the structure, was very confusing. This idea of The Kingdom of Back, something the true Woferl and Nannerl had created, was something that Lu could’ve literally taken and ran anywhere with, but instead she created something that was confusing to follow. Part of me is also a bit bothered that The Kingdom of Back isn’t something Lu created herself, which is what I assumed, but that’s another issue completely. At first, I thought that this imaginative kingdom was going to be something akin to Narnia, where the kids could get to through a portal-like entity, but it wasn’t anything like that at all. If anything, this kingdom was really just the kids’ imagination and it felt like it was something that was to represent mental insanity rather than something out of a fantasy world. It was a dream world, but not a dream world? Was it an out of body experience? A dreamscape? A projection? Who knows. But furthermore, everything in the kingdom came too easy for Nannerl; when Hyacinth would ask her to complete a task, instructing her what to do, she’d do it with little to no struggle and accomplish the task. There’s no suspense, no stakes, nothing to have the reader wonder if Nannerl will live or die. And it’s like as soon as she goes to do a task it’s over in a matter of minutes because it was simply too easy, making the plot, when it’s not about everyone being sick, more boring than exciting.
I think Lu really messed up by writing this in the first person. Again, I get she wanted to tell Nannerl’s story and by writing in first person it was another layer of giving her a voice, but it felt wrong. I think that historical fiction would read better if it was written in third person, reading more like a historical account than a personal story, and since this has fantasy elements it would benefit even more from a third person narrative. But it felt like Lu, rather than focusing on a historical fiction, wanted to make this more character driven and therefore opted for first person and it was really her weakness. With Nannerl already being a weak character on her own, by telling the story she created a weak (and incorrect) narrative that did nothing for the reader. The synopsis might claim that the story is written in a magical and lyrical manner, but I’d disagree. Maybe if it had the correct narrative that’d be true but we’ll never know.
It’s interesting how Lu wanted to tell the story of a forgotten sister, creating an early feminist voice in the 18th century, and yet her entire story revolved around the men in her life. This wasn’t a story about Nannerl; it was a story about how Nannerl fit in with her brother’s talent and fame regardless of her own; it was a story about how her father treated her and her brother differently, how she resented that but how she still wanted to do what he asked of her; and it was a story about a male faery princling tricking Nannerl to do his bidding. I’m not learning about Nannerl herself, even though she thinks she’s telling me her story. Even in the end, when she begins to tell this exact story to her own child, she’s telling Woferl’s story, not hers. She’s dismissed herself as a character in her own story like 18th century society expects of her and that’s not the message I expected out of this book. There’s no moment of enlightenment or inspiration out of Nannerl’s story in this book other than how the only way you’ll be remembered is if a man ensures it. And that’s probably the most upsetting thing about this book.
Honestly, the best I can say is not to waste your time reading this. It’s just another case of sounding great in theory but was executed so poorly that there’s nothing about it to really keep the reader engaged and entertained. A confusing fantasy world, weak narrative, wrong message, and little to no structure, this reads more like bad fan fiction than a historical fiction. I guess I hyped Marie Lu’s credibility up a little too well because if this is who she is as an author, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of her in the future.
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 eighteenth-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.
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.