The Kingdom of Little Wounds
By Susann Cokal
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press
When disaster strikes the royal family of Skyggehavn, two servants of the royal house - Ava, a seamstress, and Midi, a nursemaid - find themselves caught in the turmoil. Soon, everything will change for them, as they become a part of history.
I started getting excited about this book a long time ago - I think I first spotted it on The Book Smugglers' weekly radar post. The cover is gorgeous and evocative and the premise sounded really interesting. The book started getting a ton of buzz as well, and I am usually a big fan of most of what Candlewick publishes, so I got even more excited for this. I requested an e-galley when it came to my attention and binged on the novel one recent week, eager to finish before they discussed it over on Someday My Printz Will Come.
I'm really conflicted about this book. On the one hand, it's a beautifully written book, a sweeping story that sucks you in and doesn't let go until the last page. On the other, it's graphic (sometimes, in my opinion, gratuitously so) and difficult and doesn't fit my notion of a young adult book. Let's see if I can unpack this a bit.
Starting with the positive, yes, this book is beautifully written. The prose is lush and gripping. I love that this is set in Renaissance Scandinavia - what a fascinating time and location for an epic story. I think readers will be drawn to it because of that setting - how often have you seen that, in a book for young adults or a book in general? Not terribly often, I'd say. Similarly, I really liked the alternating viewpoints - I felt like it gave readers a chance to see the action from many sides and get a more complete picture. It kept the story moving along as well, to move frequently between different points of view.
That being said, there were things about this that were just not so good for me. By the end of the first chapter, I had already decided in my mind that this was in no way a young adult book, simply because this book starts out gruesome and continues in that vein the whole way through. It's hard for me to articulate what exactly it is about this that pushes it so clearly out of YA for me. If you know me, you'd know that I'm a firm believer in the notion of self-censoring - that is, I believe kids and teens are fully capable of deciding for themselves which topics and issues they are ready to read about at any given time. And, indeed, many of the issues present in this book can be found in other teen books to which I would have no objection - miscarriage, rape, sexually transmitted diseases, sex as a weapon of power, and so on. Perhaps it is in the confluence of all these issues in one book that makes this a hard sell for me. Perhaps it is just that they are all depicted so unapologetically graphically. Perhaps it is because I felt that some of it was completely unnecessary in moving the plot along. This ties closely with the age of the characters - yes, Ava and Midi are teenagers (two of the main characters). But they are teenagers at a time when such a concept did not exist. Nearly every other character they interact with is an adult or a young child and the third main character, the queen, is clearly an adult. This makes it even more difficult to view this book as a YA novel. I read a lot of historical fiction and this book has me wondering why I've never felt this an issue before. Surely, I've read other books with teen-aged characters in times when that would have made them adults in society's eyes. But it has never been an issue as it feels like with this book.
The author's note is terribly interesting as well - in parts even more interesting than the rest of the book. But when the author sums up her own novel as "a fairy tale about syphilis," that just leaves me baffled about publishing this for a YA audience.
As I said, I'm really conflicted about this one, and really would like to hear thoughts from others, particularly teens.
Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via NetGalley.