The Kingdom of Back

Written by Marie Lu
Review by Kristen McDermott

Maria Anna, Nannerl to her family, lives a constricted life with her little brother Woferl, both practicing the harpsichord and violin many hours a day under the watchful eye of Papa Mozart. Deprived of an ordinary childhood, the siblings escape at night into stories of a fantastical world of enchanted forests, ruined castles, and mysterious strangers that Woferl calls the Kingdom of Back because everything in it is contrary to their normal life in 18th-century Salzburg.

Lu, best known for writing science fiction and fantasy, has long been fascinated with the reputation of Nannerl, arguably the more talented of the Mozart siblings, who was forced to curtail her genius for performance and composition to take on the conventional roles of accompanist, wife, and mother. In Lu’s hands, the Kingdom becomes an almost hallucinatory source of inspiration and insight for Nannerl, as her father’s decision to put all the family resources into Wolfgang’s career deprives her of the artistic outlet she sought in her compositions. Lu points out that there is evidence that all or part of Mozart’s earliest compositions may have actually been Nannerl’s; it’s certain that in their youthful concert tours of Europe, she was by far the more accomplished performer.

The sinister figure of Hyacinth, a tragic elfin trickster, dominates her fantasies and seems to have the power to confer both the blessings of skill and the curse of frequent illness on both siblings. Lu skillfully blurs the boundaries between Nannerl’s real life and her fantasy life, creating a portrait of artistic desire and frustration that young adult readers will recognize in their own experience with navigating real and virtual identities. The novel leaves the reader convinced that the music world is poorer for not having the works of both Mozarts to cherish.