This is a character breakdown of the protagonist of The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu, based on the real woman that was Nannerl or Maria Anna Mozart. The first half of a two part series, both posts will contain spoilers for the entirety of the book. While I don't personally think this book is really a read for the plot, there will still be spoiler warnings at the beginning of both posts. Spoilers on premise and plot below.
"If I wanted immortality, it would not come from my writing. The words hung weighted around my neck. Composition was for men. It was an obvious rule. What would others think of my father if they knew I composed behind his back? That he could not even control his own daughter? What kind of girl shamed her father by secretly doing a man’s work?"
— The Kingdom of Back, Marie Lu
I'd finished The Kingdom of Back just a week or so ago, and been left completely astounded by it. Marie Lu's poetic yet accessible prose wove just the right feel around a story that would've otherwise collapsed if written wrongly. The world I was introduced to, both real and fictional, was one I felt I already knew, and could easily return to, something I love when reading fantasy. This book was filled with Fae, with ethereal beauty, with music and magic — yet none of that is where I found its heart beating.
That, I found, in the softly determined, indignant words and thoughts of Nannerl Mozart, the book's protagonist.
We're introduced to the main desire of Nannerl very early on, as soon as we learn of her love to compose. She wants to compose, and more than that, to share her work and be remembered for it. She knows her own competence, never doubting it throughout the story. It's the world — and the people that uphold it — keeping her from her dream of immortality in history. Women may not perform, nor may they compose.
Nannerl won't accept that. Not as a child, nor as a young woman.
Enter her Faustian bargain-esque shot of making her mark on history: Hyacinth. A faery prince that promises her eternal remembrance if she'll complete three tasks he sets. The farther into the quest Nannerl goes, though, the more she will be asked to give, all the way to sacrificing her relationship with her own brother.
Nannerl and Society
The book takes us through Nannerl's youth, making smooth timeskips between the blurring weeks, months, and years. As Nannerl grows, so does her anger.
It sharpens, becoming more defined as she finds the footing and vocabulary to voice it, whether out loud in her protests towards her father, or simply in her constant stream of observant thought. It can feel subtle, at times, a constant hum in the background. Then there are occasional bursts of frustration finally materializing, of articulate anger, such as this monologue directly quoted from the book:
"He tells you to play, so you play. He tells you to curtsy, so you curtsy. He tells you what you are meant to do and what you are meant not to do, so you do and you do not do. He tells you not to be angry, so you smile, you turn your eyes down, you are quiet and do exactly as he says in the hopes that this is what he wants, and then one night you realize that you have given him so much of yourself that you are nothing but the curtsy and the smile and the quiet. That you are nothing."
She realizes she is powerless in most of the situations, yet refuses to give up hope, or, at the very least, her anger at "the way things are". Occasionally mixing the anger at the world with her feelings towards her brother, Nannerl feels what she feels unapologetically and deeply, even if she doesn't shout it out, run away from home, or swagger around to prove it. Because in her words: what is the use?
"“I want what is mine,” I said. My talent. My work. The right to be remembered. The memory of me to exist.""
Some have found her character boring, bland, and simply not enough. She doesn't do enough. Her way of fixing what's broken, of reclaiming her right to being remembered, to composing and performing, is behind-the-scenes, organized in stolen moments while the family sleeps, and literally in the magic of her head.
For usual YA standards, this isn't enough, because she's not bursting through the fray, swinging a sword and showing her power. She's conforming, keeping from recklessness, keeping herself in check. Keeping herself from falling into trouble, possibly having what little she has taken from her as well.
It's realistic, and that bores some.
No, she's not your typical brave, willful, bold female protagonist, cutting through society with a flaming sword to reclaim her sweet justice. Nannerl is a young girl with a quiet fury growing in her that fuels her roundabout efforts to claim remembrance and immortality.
She breaks two standards at once: the one that tells girls not to perform or compose — and the one that tells girls to blast through doors, kick down opposition, and unleash their rage everywhere to be feminist and strong.
She's punished for both acts of rebellion. Once, within her story. And next, after telling her story. Nannerl unapologetically shatters the expectations, the preferences, of both society and readers alike.
That's pretty strong. Pretty brave, and bold.
Do not mistake her quietness for any less of a fury, or a will, to break through the misogynistic convention. Nannerl is a character that understands who she is, who others view her to be, what she wants, and how she intends to get it. Her lines are controlled and efficient, quickly informing both characters and readers alike that she is aware of the constraints she must break. That she does break, in her own way.
Nannerl and Hyacinth and Papa
"I narrowed my eyes at him. “Everyone always thinks they are protecting me.”"
The closer she draws to one, the further she separates from the other. Neither is very good for her, though both theoretically want what is best for her and her future. One, Papa, seems to represent all that keeps Nannerl from her one wish; the other, Hyacinth, offers her the way that checks all her wish boxes — all but one.
We'll get to that, in a bit.
As catalysts in the tug-of-war between what Nannerl wants (to be remembered forever) and what Nannerl might be doomed to get (being forgotten, relegated to having children and sitting still, maybe teaching piano lessons), they're interesting enough, particularly Hyacinth.
As pinpoints of the way Nannerl (and the narrative) sees men — they're an even stronger setup.
"“Do not be naïve, Nannerl,” he said. “All men are villains. They want only to benefit. Remember that, and do not speak again to a stranger unless I have given you permission to do so.”"
Both worlds, as we see through her eyes, are in the throes of men (the real world held by her father and men that make the rules, the kingdom by Hyacinth, who introduces her, and is her only way in).
The motives of both "rulers", Papa and Hyacinth, are eventually questioned by Nannerl, as she begins to realize how everyone can see her as a pawn, either because of her prodigious ability or because of her own desperate desire for immortality. The farther into her narrative we read, the more the above quote seems to ring true — everyone wants to benefit, everyone is a villain in their own right when given power. Though she begins the story wishing for the approval of them, she ends with more knowledge and wariness.
As for those that don't hold the keys to her fate: part 2, coming on the 31st, will talk more about the relationship between Nannerl and her brother, Woferl.
Janelle Yapp is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.