Most people in Western society know the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The clavier child prodigy composed dozens of pieces that torment fledgling pianists and violinists to this very day, but in the 18th century his fame was less secure. Known for his eccentric and mercurial moods, Mozart often struggled to keep his finances—and ego—in check. His elder sister, Maria Anna, was nearly as musically accomplished as her brother but has largely been ignored by history. In her latest young adult historical fantasy novel, The Kingdom of Back, Marie Lu attempts to give Maria Anna her due. This is the story of Mozart…the other Mozart.
Set over the course of a decade, The Kingdom of Back follows the young Mozart siblings Maria Anna and Wolfgang Amadeus, known as Nannerl and Woferl. As musical prodigies, the children enchant the merchant and trade classes and nobility of Central Europe in the 18th century. But as lonely, isolated children they suffer under the impossible demands of their father and the acquiescence of their mother. Both love the clavier and the way the music creates a language more expressive than any spoken one, the way their emotions flowed out of their hearts and into the keys. But it is a bittersweet love. Their father takes their talents and runs the children through the mill of capitalism, using them to fill his coffers and immortalize the Mozart name. No, that’s how he saw Woferl; Nannerl was an exciting oddity whose appeal fades as she ages.
At first, Nannerl is the musical gem of the Mozart family. She holds everyone’s attention and is the sole receiver of her father’s admiration. Until her baby brother squeezes in. Nannerl has immense talent, but Woferl has a seemingly innate gift. Despite his youth, he consistently outshines her, to their father’s delight and her horror. The brighter he burns, the more diminished she feels.
Enter Hyacinth, a handsome prince who climbs out of the Kingdom of Back, a fantasy world created by the Mozart children during a moment of idle boredom. Hyacinth, the boy with the beautiful face and tragic past, offers Nannerl a trade: he’ll grant her fame and recognition if she helps him recover his lost kingdom. A deal is struck, but Nannerl realizes the terms were not as crystal clear as she thought. Is she the hero of the story or the villain? The curse-breaker or the destroyer of worlds? And if her immortality is dependent on her brother’s demise, will she hold up her end of the bargain anyway?
Nannerl’s relationship with the book’s antagonist (whose identity I will not reveal for spoilers) creates an interesting analogy for what happens when an abuser exploits and exacerbates their victim’s low self-esteem. The antagonist quickly finds the cracks in Nannerl’s foundation and tells her they are the thing keeping her whole, all while subtly fracturing her further. She trusts the antagonist without question because doing so means getting what she wants. Her father uses her in much the same way. Where he has long ago decided the cost of his children’s happiness is worth less than wealth and connections, Nannerl’s choice comes later in the novel. As much as she understands that men are not always right and that many see her as a tool to be used for their own personal benefit, she cannot recognize it up close. Or maybe she can but is unwilling to because doing so will upend what little security (and power) she has.
However optimistic the ending, it is undercut by epilogue. In the real world, Maria Anna remained—at least as far as the public knows—completely and utterly subservient to her father, so much so that she handed over her newborn son to him to raise. Her relationship with her beloved baby brother shattered. He never met her children and he died without reconciling with her. With all that rattling around in my head, all I could think was how sad it was that the Nannerl from the book apparently unlearns everything from her misadventures in the Kingdom of Back and returns to her submissive role.
For all the talk of Nannerl taking matters into her own hands and standing up to manipulative, self-centered men, she ultimately relinquishes her power and bows down to their supposed superiority. I would love to believe the real Nannerl was not as passive as historians have made her out to be, to be the quietly resolute woman Lu presents her as. Earlier in the novel Nannerl encounters a witch imprisoned in a cave with her feet bound to the rocky ground; historians present the real Maria Anna as a woman in a similar position. It matters whether Nannerl (both the fictional and the real) was reserved or resigned, whether she chose to shackle herself to the rocks like the witch or if someone else trapped her there, but neither Lu nor history offer a satisfactory answer. I wouldn’t call that a flaw of the book, but I would’ve liked a little more out of that brief epilogue.
With a unique premise and an understated beauty, The Kingdom of Back makes for an engaging shift in Marie Lu’s bibliography. This novel is unlike anything else she’s published. It is historical fact transformed into a fairy tale and twisted into a tragedy. There is no question of Lu’s extraordinary literary talent; she is at peak form here with her nuanced tale of sibling rivalry and familial distrust.
The Kingdom of Back is available from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.