Marie Lu’s The Kingdom of Back (2020) is a historical fantasy based on the lives of Wolfgang Mozart and his beloved sister Marie Anna whose pet name was Nannerl. Nannerl was four years older than Wolfgang and a musical prodigy when she was a child. Tutored by her father, Leopold, she was much admired and praised as “the rare woman with a good ear” according to one of the characters in Lu’s novel.
As a child, Nannerl was sought after as a performer, even playing for royalty. Nannerl began teaching Wolfgang’s to play before her father realized he was ready. Wolfgang was obviously gifted — a musical genius — and soon he joined his sister’s concert tours.
Unfortunately for Nannerl, however, music composition was a man’s world and she was discouraged and even punished for creating her own music. So, she composed secretly. Only her brother acknowledged her brilliance and sought her expertise and counsel. Nannerl was expected to marry when she turned 18 and she was pressured by her parents and her society to give up public music performances when she became an adult. So she did.
The Kingdom of Back is named for the fantasy world that Nannerl and Wolfgang created during their long days on the road travelling between the European cities they performed in. They pretended they were queen and king of the backward running kingdom.
Marie Lu uses the kingdom of Back as a fantasy element. It’s introduced when Nannerl’s composition notebook is stolen and, after chasing down the thief, she meets a boy named Hyacinth who offers to give her what she wants if she’ll help him get his throne back in faery. Nannerl confides that her worst fear is that she’ll be forgotten. She wants to be noticed and to leave a legacy. She agrees to do a series of tasks for Hyacinth in exchange for his help. Over the years, as she does Hyacinth’s bidding, she becomes more and more concerned about Hyacinth’s plans and methods.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know Wolfgang Mozart had a sister, so of course I was ignorant of her influence on his life and music. Before I started reading The Kingdom of Back, I did a little of my own research about Nannerl because, when I read historical fiction, I like to have an idea about how much of the author’s story is based on reality and how much is made up. It turns out that, as far as the historical details go, Marie Lu stuck close to the history, though I’m not sure if Leopold Mozart was as much of an ogre as Lu paints him.
The parts that were most embellished were the fantasy elements, of course, which are obviously fictional, yet they cleverly relate to the story because of the imaginary world the Mozart children created and shared together.
But, even as a fantasy literature lover, my favorite thing about The Kingdom of Back was learning the truth about Mozart and his sister, and getting a sense of the European music scene in the 18th century, as well as the cultural and health issues of the day (such as smallpox). Thank you to Marie Lu for doing her part to make sure that Marie Anna Mozart is not forgotten.
The audiobook version of The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu (Listening Library) is quite pleasant. It’s 10.5 hours long (I sped it up slightly, though) and it’s narrated by Lauren Ezzo.