I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant when I heard about Marie Lu diving into the historical fantasy genre. I’ve read the majority of her books and while some are great, the last series I read by her left me wanting something more. The Kingdom of Back, however, far exceeded my expectations. It just might be my favorite Marie Lu novel.
Nannerl Mozart has just one wish—to be remembered forever. Though born with a gift for music, as a young girl in 18th century in Europe, she is forbidden from composing music. She will only delight audiences with her performances until she reaches a suitable age for marriage. Her brother, Wolfgang, however, only seems to shine brighter with his music and begins to eclipse her own talents. Until a stranger from another land offers Nannerl a deal: help him reclaim his kingdom and he will make her wish come true. She agrees, but soon learns that helping him might cost her everything.
Unlike most of her books that are action-packed and fast paced, The Kingdom of Back is slow and lush. It’s a waltz through the history of the Mozart family with an added smattering of magic to give it something more.
The writing in this book is incredible. The way Marie Lu uses music to weave the two worlds—our world and the Kingdom of Back—is enchanting. I didn’t mind that it was a slower paced novel because I wanted to soak up all the beautiful descriptions and sentences. I wanted to linger in this world she created.
The idea of combining historical details and a fantasy, fairy tale-esque world is also fascinating. Hacyinth, the fae who approaches Nannerl to grant her wish, has all the Peter Pan vibes, but there are also dark undertones to him that make me a little wary of Nannerl’s relationship with him. Marie Lu takes the typical fairy tale elements and flips them around, which kept me guessing as the story unfolded. I love that the two worlds are so intimately laced together. That the events that happen in one affect the other and vice versus.
The narrator comes across a bit distanced, however. I don’t know if that was intentional or if that’s just how it came across because of the way the story is told. I understood Nannerl, even ached for her plight in life and the way women were treated at the time, but I never quite connected with her in a way that was satisfactory. I felt as if I was standing at the window looking in on the story instead of standing right next to her.
I’m also divided about the Mozart connection. Marie Lu explains in her author note where she was inspired by the idea, and I definitely love when books highlight stories that have been forgotten by history. But some of the historical ideas presented in this come across more far-fetched than the fantasy elements. I know the story is exploring “what if” questions, but I would have enjoyed this more had it been just a story about a brother and sister, musical prodigies, without a connection to a historical figure. It is also odd to combine such a deep fairy tale story with actual people from history. Many of the historical fantasy stories I read are about fictional characters during a specific time period or historical event.
Still, The Kingdom of Back is compelling. The writing is fantastical and musical and beautiful. The relationship between Nannerl and her brother Wolfgang is sweet and realistic. And all the elements combined together make for a great story and an even better fairy tale.