The Kingdom of Back

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Book Review

The Kingdom of Back introduces us to another brilliant musician named Mozart: a girl, a sister, named Maria Anna. It tells of the perilous lengths she’ll go to be remembered by history, and the mysterious boy from a fairy kingdom who enters her life. 

Plot Summary

Most people have at least a passing knowledge of the brilliant musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But few know of his sister, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl). Author Marie Lu weaves historical fact with fantasy fiction to tell the story of this equally gifted girl and young woman. The book shows us her struggles and desires in a time when women were far less apt to be remembered by history.

I am going to tell you a story you already know. But listen carefully, because within it is one you have never heard before.

There is no doubt that 8-year-old Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart is a wonderfully impressive musician. Her father, Leopold, has pushed her in her keyboard lessons and brought important men to hear her play ever since she showed the slightest hint of talent playing their clavier. And even though Leopold is a hard task master, and frankly, hopes to use the brilliance of his child for his own good fortunes, Nannerl can’t help but crave his attention and approval.

In fact, while playing beautiful music so beautifully, young Nannerl begins to yearn for even more. Would it be possible to escape the inevitable anonymity that is a woman’s place in Salzburg, Austria, of 1759, and somehow leave her mark on the world? Could she become immortal, be remembered by history for the incredible music she can produce? Is there some magic in the world, she wonders, that could make that happen?

However, when younger brother Wolfgang Amadeus—or Woferl as Nannerl affectionately calls him—starts to exhibit some amazing skills of his own, Nannerl’s dream appears even more impossible. Tiny Woferl unknowingly threatens to eclipse her in the eyes of both history and her father.

But one night, as Nannerl once more gives voice to her secret wish, she is heard and answered by a faerie princeling who steps out from the shadows in her little room. Hyacinth is the magical boy’s name, and he claims to be from the faery Kingdom of Back—a mystical land that she and Woferl had made up in bedtime stories. Hyacinth assures her, however, that the magical, upside-down forest kingdom is quite real. And he offers to grant Nannerl her wish of musical immortality in exchange for three small tasks, undertakings that Hyacinth assures her she is more than capable of accomplishing.  

Nannerl is ecstatic. This eerily handsome boy is the first person to recognize her true worth, to really see her. And he claims to have the power—after magically appearing in her room, no less—to grant her deepest, dearest wish. But even as she leaps at the princeling’s bargain, Nannerl can’t help but wonder … will the true price be too high?

Christian Beliefs

Nannerl is very much aware of God’s eye watching the choices she makes. And she prays to God on several occasions. When writing (and then hiding) her own musical compositions—an activity that she is sure her father will disapprove of—she wonders if God will punish her for her secretive disobedience.

Other Belief Systems

As the story of Nannerl and Woferl unfolds, and the children are taken to play before various royals, the princeling Hyacinth keeps popping up with dark-of-night quests for both of the Mozart children. These quests all take place in the Kingdom of Back and involve what appears to be, in most cases, dark magic. Nannerl must retrieve magical items—a sword, a flower and a crossbow—and use these items in a larger magical quest.

Ultimately, though, it’s easy to see these adventures as a spiritual allegory, a struggle between light and dark, good and evil. And that fantasy tale has some strong words against dabbling in dark things. “Wicked souls always seek to trap us,” a wise person notes. We see dark and sometimes nasty little faery creatures; an ogre; a creature stated to be a witch; and dark cloaked figures that swoop near the sick or dying. And some characters turn out to be far more evil and malevolent than we first think them. “But be wary what you wish for,” someone warns. “Wishes have a habit of surprising their makers.”

On the other hand, a Kingdom of Back resident who proves to be light-centered helps Nannerl push back against this darkness, and she tells the girl that she must be strong and always choose the path of goodness, always fight for what’s good and right, even when it’s difficult.

“It’s a long battle to fight, but you must still fight it. Speak for those less fortunate than yourself, who will need your help. Speak for those who will come after you looking for guidance. Stay true, daughter.”

This statement can be looked at as both a spiritual encouragement and a call to stand against real-world social injustice.

 

Authority Roles

Nannerl’s parents aren’t always the best of parental examples. It’s clear that they both love their children, but they’re not above using the children to rake in money and gifts from royal benefactors they entertain. Leopold drives the children like a taskmaster. And some of his choices end up making both Nannerl and Woferl quite sick, with everything from extreme fatigue and fevers to smallpox. Leopold also steals Nannerl’s hidden compositions without a world to her.

The royal benefactors of the day aren’t always painted in a flattering light either. Most are very self-focused. And though they heap praise on the talented children, they are more than ready to turn their back on a whim.

Profanity/Graphic violence/Alcohol

There’s no foul language in this tale.

On the violence side of the equation, we see the real-world struggles the children must go through in the form of fatigue and sickness. Woferl has a weak constitution and regularly has to retreat to bed with a fever. Several people die from smallpox.

In the fantasy kingdom world, though there are far more violent interactions and peril. Nannerl has to fulfill dangerous tasks, including killing a water monster and running from a raging ogre. She finds herself nipped at and scratched by fantasy creatures and flora. She’s threatened by magically powerful, malevolent individuals. Nannerl watches as an innocent is devoured. None of these situations are particularly gory, but they are dark and fever-dream-like at times. In fact, after most of the crossings into the Kingdom of Back, Nannerl awakes the next morning to wonder if they were just a bad dream. Woferl suffers those dreams as well.

Doctors minister to the sick children with bleedings and nasty medical concoctions.

Profanity & Violence

There’s no foul language in this tale.

On the violence side of the equation, we see the real-world struggles the children must go through in the form of fatigue and sickness. Woferl has a weak constitution and regularly has to retreat to bed with a fever. Several people die from smallpox.

In the fantasy kingdom world, though there are far more violent interactions and peril. Nannerl has to fulfill dangerous tasks, including killing a water monster and running from a raging ogre. She finds herself nipped at and scratched by fantasy creatures and flora. She’s threatened by magically powerful, malevolent individuals. Nannerl watches as an innocent is devoured. None of these situations are particularly gory, but they are dark and fever-dream-like at times. In fact, after most of the crossings into the Kingdom of Back, Nannerl awakes the next morning to wonder if they were just a bad dream. Woferl suffers those dreams as well.

Doctors minister to the sick children with bleedings and nasty medical concoctions.

Sexual Content

Along with his ongoing flirtations and caressing of Nannerl’s cheeks, the inscrutable Hyacinth kisses her once. “His lips seemed dusted with sugar, sweet and ice-cold,” Nannerl breathlessly describes it.

After the years pass, there’s a mention of Nannerl getting her “monthly courses.” She worries that this will soon make her old enough to be given away in marriage.

Discussion Topics

What do you think this book says about young women? Are things different for young women today compared to the 18th century? How have they changed?

What do you think this story says about our struggle with good and evil? Were the nighttime adventures in the Kingdom of Back just fantasy, or are there spiritual parallels you can point to?

You could say that the Kingdom of Back fantasy that Nannerl and Woferl made up was all based on Nannerl’s wish for fame. What do you think the book was saying about our wishes and how they impact us in good and bad ways?

Nannerl also makes some very self-sacrificial choices. Are there times in our lives when self-sacrifice is a must? How have you given of yourself in that way?

How did this book leave you feeling?

Get free discussion questions for other books at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

Marie Lu’s tale is well-written and thoughtful. It’s an immersive adventure that not only gives readers a look at a slice of history they might not know, but it also raises questions about how things have changed—especially for young women.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose.

 

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