Book Review: The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

Posted October 14, 2021 by Amber in Reviews / 3 Comments

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The Kingdom of Back

The Kingdom of Back

by Marie Lu

Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons on March 3, 2020
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Target Age Group: Young Adult
Representation: Asian Voices, Chinese Voices, Chinese-American Voices
Content Warnings: Blood, Death, Misogyny, Sexism

Rating: ★★★★

Check out this book on Goodreads or buy the book at Bookshop.org

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.


I really enjoy it when I learn about an historical figure through a fiction book. Before picking up The Kingdom of Back, I had no idea that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an older sister. While there are elements of fantasy in this book (The Kingdom of Back is an historical fantasy after all) there’s enough research around Wolferl and Nannerl to tie into their true life story. Well done, Marie Lu!

If there were glaring historical inaccuracies in that part of the book, I would be the first person to call them out. But I’m serious when I say Lu did a fantastic job here – the history was vivid, the music sang, and the fantasy was appropriately menacing. Ironically, the the tone of the book often conjured “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Greig for me, rather than something Mozart himself wrote, but the classical music element was there regardless.

There are three pieces at the center of The Kingdom of Back. First, we have Nannerl’s ambitions – she’s an extremely talented musician and composer, but as a woman, she will never be able to follow her heart or publish her music as it was “a man’s job” at the time. Obviously today we know this is absolute poppycock, and Lu successfully recreated Nannrl’s internal struggle between the need to behave in a societally acceptable manner and please her father, and her desire to write music. Second, we have the relationship between Wolfrl and Nannrl. The sibling relationship is the thread that pulls the book together and Nannerl’s driving motivation. There were sweet moments and frustrating moments and as a strictly raised older sister to a passionate and free younger brother, I found myself empathizing with Nannerl frequently. Finally, we have Hyacinth’s pact and the children’s relationship to the Kingdom. All together you have a complex story split between two worlds that is constantly testing the loyalty and selfishness of the characters.

Plot-wise, I loved it. The Kingdom of Back is fantastic. Aesthetically, the book reminded me strongly of Wintersong, both in the chilly European aesthetic and the foundation of classical music and their composers. This inspiration is still pretty uncommon in the literary world, and it was a refreshing change of pace. The coexistence of historical and fantasy evoked images of The Magicians or The Chronicles of Narnia – a little magic in the ordinary. While The Kingdom of Back tells a very different story than either of these, it’s the sort of world you are entering when you pick up this book.

The characters and relationships were both intricate and interesting. There’s a scene between Nannerl and her father that adds excellent depth to his character and strengthens the reader’s understanding of their relationship that I really appreciated. I felt the real world characters – even minor ones like Johan – were better developed than the fantasy characters. While I believe this was part by design (Hyacinth is mysterious and duplicitous after all), the lack of depth kept me distant as a reader there was that loss of emotional investment in his part of the story.

My major complaint about The Kingdom of Back is the way the story is told. We spend an awful lot of time in Nannerl’s head and while this perspective feels true to life, it’s also not always interesting for the reader and becomes repetitive. I liked that it was a single POV because it suited Nannerl’s deeply guarded fears and anger, but I think this could have been a stronger book with a little less analysis of her thoughts and a little more immersion into her world.

The Kingdom of Back is different than many of the other things I’ve read by Marie Lu. The more I read her recent books, the more I am convinced that she has grown exponentially as a writer during her career. The Kingdom of Back and Skyhunter are much more impressive novels than Warcross and Legend. Fans of her earlier work may not like The Kingdom of Back as much because it’s such a departure from her YA science fiction, but to miss this book would be a mistake – it’s an excellent work, compelling while be being subtly educational and full of sinister magic. I recommend it.

Setting

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pacing

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Personal Enjoyment

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Plot

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Writing

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Narrator

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Code Yellow Problematic Authors Books

Marie Lu has Written Books with Problematic Content.

While this author has not actively participated in harming marginalized communities, they do have one or more books that have been popularly called out for problematic content. If you would like to learn more about these incidents and what works has been criticized, please click the poisoned apple.

send me your thoughts

Do you enjoy classical music?

I never seek it out, but when I happen to hear classical music, I’m always impressed with its complexity. What about you?

Share with me in the comments!

stay magical amber

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Also by Marie Lu

4 books found
The Kingdom of Back

★★★★

Skyhunter by Marie Lu

★★★★½

★★★½

★★


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3 responses to “The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

    • Amber

      I completely understand that feeling! I didn’t like Legend and had mixed feelings about Warcross. Skyhunter pulled me in with its cover and I really enjoyed that one, and I liked this one too! But I also think the reasons WHY you liked/didn’t like the book make a difference. For me it was the way she handled her characters and romances in her earlier books, so when this book had little to no romance I was thrilled. ? But it’s a gamble when you’ve had mixed experience with an author – there’s a lot of books in the world and no time for ones we don’t enjoy. ?

  1. I had quite the opposite reaction! This is the first book by Marie Lu, and I didn’t think it was particularly memorable. The writing was lackluster for me, and when I read that this was the first book she wrote (but not the first she had published), it made sense to me. I imagine her writing has improved, but I haven’t really been inspired to give her work another try after this one.

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