I knew from the moment that I read the blurb that I'd enjoy The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu. The premise is right on the mark for me: the musically gifted Nannerl Mozart wishes to be remembered, but in a world that favours men, with women relegated to being carers and mothers, a future as a shining star in music is out of reach. Not only that, but Nannerl finds herself overshadowed by her younger brother Mozart, who becomes the focus of their father's obsession for fame.
As a musician, I already knew some of Mozart's history, and I enjoyed how Lu brings Nannerl's world to life, where travel was often a wearying, toilsome process in a shaking carriage and diseases like smallpox drove fear into people's hearts. Lu's knowledge of and love for music shines through in every chapter.
At its heart, this is a story about family, and the special bond between brother and sister, but also a journey into the dream-like kingdom of Back, where the unnerving faerie Hyacinth presides. I got serious Labyrinth vibes off the novel as a whole, with Hyacinth's fair façade masking a more disturbing darkness much in the same way that Jareth the Goblin King at first presents himself as a dubious benefactor to the innocent, trusting Sarah. And in much the same way, Nannerl's own awakening as a young woman is reflected in Hyacinth as her animus.
What at first seems a magical intrusion into Nannerl's life soon takes a more sinister turn, as she navigates the choppy waters of growing up and finding her place in the world, while also coming to grips with the bargain she's struck with Hyacinth. I won't spoil, but I will say this much: the ending was bittersweet and subtle, and the author's message about women's rights crystal clear. How many other young women throughout the ages have had to take a back seat due to societal norms? This resonated strongly with me.
Lu's writing is as musical as her subject matter, and her descriptions bring the story vividly to life. There were parts of the tale that dragged a little, and the conclusion is more a gradual, somewhat predictable unfolding as Nannerl aims to set injustices right, but overall this is a thoroughly enchanting story that I'd recommend to anyone who cares about the dreams of young women.