When you hear the name Mozart, you will most likely think of Wolfgang Amadeus, the child prodigy who made unimaginably vast contributions to classical music—but there wasn’t just one musically proficient Mozart. With her young adult novel fusion between historical fiction and fantasy, The Kingdom of Back, Marie Lu (Legend, Warcross) pulls us into a decade-long narrative from the POV of Mozart’s big sister. In Salzburg of 1759, eight-year-old Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart captivates audiences with her marvelous clavier performances. She even composes her own pieces, but privately—in the eighteenth century this art is taboo for women. And she won’t be able to pursue this passion forever, not with her imperious father planning to marry her off once she comes of age. She becomes even more frustrated once her little brother, nicknamed Woferl, starts to manifest his own incredible flair for the clavier. All Nannerl wants is to be “worthy of praise, of being loved and remembered” for her craft, yet Woferl is drawing all the attention away from her and becoming the primary child prodigy of the family.
One day, the Mozart siblings pass the time together by inventing the Kingdom of Back, a magical land where trees grow upside-down with their roots reaching for the twin moons hanging high in the sky. Not only are they able to actually visit this realm, but they also meet Hyacinth, an alluring and enigmatic faery princeling who offers to help Nannerl gain eminence for her talent in exchange for her assistance in bringing his dead kingdom back to life. Over the years, however, this agreement turns out to be not as straightforward as it initially seemed. Nannerl is forced to reckon with her actions, and decide how far she wants to go to gain great renown and if that’s worth the fall of her beloved brother.
The Kingdom of Back is the latest example of Lu’s remarkable writing skills. It coalesces the historical fiction of the Mozart children with the fantastical aspects of the Kingdom of Back to create an immersive and frightening world driven by the siblings’ complex rivalry and loving bond. Despite having enjoyed Mozart’s tunes all my life, I never knew he had a sister who was a musical child prodigy in her own right. The Kingdom of Back didn’t exist solely in this novel either—the siblings really did make up stories about it, fancying themselves as its rulers. Lu portrays Nannerl as a determined young woman who utilizes the power of subtle defiance to thwart the authority of dictatorial men. Her interactions with two of the male characters are noteworthy examples of toxic relationships and what happens when one person uses manipulation and emotional abuse to subdue their partner. My only issue is with the somewhat unsatisfying epilogue. From what I’ve learned since reading this book, history seems to have characterized the real-life Maria Anna as a compliant woman who obeyed her father’s wishes, although I would prefer deeming that she possessed the inward strength with which this depiction endowed her. There are indications that she wrote compositions, but none of them survive today, and I can’t help but wonder whether she may have lent her quill to at least a few of her famed brother’s pieces. We’ll never know her true story, but for the purposes of this novel and the lessons she seemed to have taken to heart from her time in the Kingdom of Back, it would have been nice for the epilogue to provide a more fulfilling resolution for her arc. Overall, Marie Lu executes a historical fantasy adventure as melodic, impassioned, and poignant as the music and magic by which it’s fueled—and hopefully it will encourage you to edify yourself on the brilliant Nannerl Mozart.
Windup score: 92/100