The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.
The Plot: 1572. The royal city of Skyggehavn in Scandinavia. The stories of royalty, nobility, and servants are woven together, creating a tapestry of a time, a place, and a crisis.
King Christian V and his French wife, Isabel, have produced over a half dozen children, securing the future of the country. The eldest, twelve year old Princess Sophia, is being married to Duke Magnus of Sweden, promising peace.
It sounds just like a fairy tale!
Except this is no fairy tale. The children are all sickly. Sophie dies in her marriage bed. Isabel, pregnant again, seems to be going mad. Christian is ill. And while the voices of the royals occasionally join in the telling, the true story of The Kingdom of Little Wounds is about two teenagers on the edges of the royal story, a servant, Ava Bingen, and a slave, Midi Sorte.
The Good: I picked this up because I saw it being discussed at Someday My Printz Will Come, and was intrigued.
The Kingdom of Little Woods is not a quick read. It’s a dense, complicated book that plunges the reader into the story, into 1572, and the world of Skyggehaven. Isabel’s story, her marriage and children and unborn child, are important, yes, but — unlike many a fairy tale about a princess — the two strongest voices, the two stories most important to the reader, are those of Ava and Midi. Isabel’s story matters because of how it affects Ava and Midi.
Ava is one of the needlewoman for Queen Isabel; she is the youngest, the newest, the most insignificant, but she has dreams of something more. Ava wants to make up for the disgrace she brought upon her family, when she was abandoned by her fiance and miscarried on the church steps. Instead of working her way up the rank of royal servants, a mistake means that she moves downward and finds herself embroiled in the politics of the country, asked to spy by Nicolas Bullen on the queen and the children.
Nicolas Bullen of Bon is a steward of the Queen’s household with great ambitions. He will use anyone, and anything, including a disgraced servant, to get what we wants; for those below him, he manipulates, threatens, and uses physical and sexual abuse to get his way. For those above, he manipulates, flatters, flirts.
Midi Sorte was kidnapped from Africa as a child, sold and given away. Her tongue was cut, silencing her voice but not her thoughts and words. Her love, the court historian Arthur, has taught her read. She watches and observes. As someone with so little power, she takes what she can.
Midi and Ava do not become friends; they are people who know each other. Who see each other as vague threats. That only increases when Arthur starts paying attention to Ava. Neither Midi nor Ava have many options or power. They are constrained by being female, by being a slave, by being a servant with no connections, by being poor. Each in her own way struggles against her place in the world, and sometimes, because of that, they do things that aren’t nice. Or kind. But, theirs is not a world that has been nice or kind to them.
Personally? I loved The Kingdom of Little Wounds. I loved the layered storytelling with few answers. I loved the complexity of Ava and Midi, and even of Isabel. I liked the historical accuracy and truthfulness: the casual cruelty, the concerns of court life, the fears. I like how Ava and Midi try to create their own lives within the constraints of their time and society. One of the questions raised over at Someday My Printz Will Come was whether this is, indeed, a young adult book; aren’t Midi and Ava considered adults in their world? Not really; while both may be working, neither is free to pursue their own interests or desires. Like some teens today, they have to answer to others, they have to follow the paths other decide, they make poor choices, they take anger and frustration out on the wrong people, their actions have unintended consequences.
The author has described her book as “a fairy tale about syphilis.” Syphilis, also called the French Fire and the Italian Fire, is running through the story as a threat. Nicolas takes a rather unique step in protecting himself from the Italian Fire. Sex and sexual relationships is treated both matter of factly (an upperclass woman entertaining a lover in front of a servant, because servants are invisible) and also spoken about as a sin. Being a sin doesn’t stop someone like Nicolas from forcing and blackmailing Ava and Midi, and neither have any recourse to his actions.
The court politics, loyalties, and actions are not always clear, because — much like history — The Kingdom of Little Wounds offers various perspectives. No one person has all knowledge. Some things are left unclear and unknown. Ava and Midi suffer small gains and large set backs, managing to do what they can while living under the power of others. For most of the book Ava and Midi are reacting, characters on another’s chessboard. As the final chapters approach, that changes. Ava and Midi take central stage, taking control of their own narratives.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds is, as I mentioned, a demanding read. It isn’t short and easy, there are many people speaking, and the time and place (sixteenth century Scandinavia) is unfamiliar. Confession: at first I thought this was an entirely made up fantasy world, due to my unfamiliarity with the time and place. Demanding, yes; but ultimately rewarding, by becoming immersed in the world of Ava and Midi.
A second confession: I read this as I was watching Reign, the CW’s series about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots while she is a teenager at the French court. Reign is a fun TV show to watch, but it’s so full of historical inaccuracy that one has to just sit back and enjoy the ride. If historical accuracy is what you want? Then The Kingdom of Little Wounds is the perfect antidote for Reign. (And, it’s also interesting to read a book that is so about the impact of syphilis while watching a TV show that has quite the bit of bed hopping without any worrying about it, even though they are both in the same time period, give or take 20 years. And, to read a book about the hard work and overlooked lives of the servants while watching a show all about the pretty, rich and privileged.)
End result for me? Yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2013.
Other reviews: Locker Combinations with Jill Ratzan at BookPage; Librarian of Snark; Monkey Poop; GenreFluent; Miss Literati.