While reading this book, I thought to myself that it was going to be rather difficult to describe it to my readers in a simple but effective way. When I finished reading the story (which had me in total thrall, by the way), I read through the author's comments at the end. In her comments, Cokal described her own story as "a fairytale about syphilis." And I think that's a pretty fair description. But let me also say this: The Kingdom of Little Wounds may just be the best book I've read this year, and I almost didn't even read it. I took it off the shelf in the library on whim, because of the first sentence:
"It is while I stitch together the Queen's gown, on the night her eldest daughter is to die, that I first sense an easy power."
That sentence got me, but despite my interest, I let this book sit on my shelf and almost returned it without reading it. I let it sit there because I'm not typically a fan of Young Adult fiction, but I am into fairytales, so I picked it up again one night and fell head-over-heels into this strange and dark fairytale. It's the story of three women who live in the Scandinavian city of Skyyggehavn: Ava, a needlewoman on the Queen's staff, Midi, a dark-skinned maid from a foreign land, and Queen Isabel. The tale is so complicated that it's hard to explain, but there are twists and turns, secrets, spies, poisons, and the supernatural. It's set in a time when power was negotiated through spymasters and the futures of kingdoms rested in the cribs of infantile princes and princesses. This particular royal family is one of the most unique that I've encountered; I loved the way that Cokal filled the roles of the King and Queen with these characters that are so incredibly flawed but are worshipped by a society in which their subjects care more about their bloodlines than their leadership. Ironically enough, it was their bloodline that became the fatal flaw of the family, and as the three women narrate their perspectives, they must each strive to survive the terrible power struggle that takes place in the castle that they call home.
This book is full of intrigue, of shame and dark secrets and of manipulation. It's a fantastic creation and a nod to the grim and violent tradition of classic fairytales. (Did I mention it all starts with the prick of a needle? -- I loved that detail.) I felt so many emotions while reading this book: indignation at the things these women had to endure, disgust for the social norms (and hygiene), pity for many, hatred for a choice few, and just plain old bafflement and admiration for these extremely well-made characters. I loved everything about it: the adoration for the royal family, the lurking villains behind the mask of the seemingly innocent, the reverence for and fear of the heavens, and the crippling superstitions and customs.
I couldn't find a single thing to criticize about the story itself, but I will say this: I have no idea who decided to market this book to a YA audience, but that was a very poorly made decision. This book is way beyond anything I would recommend to a typical YA audience (which starts at age 13). This is not for readers under the age of 16 (or maybe even older, in my opinion) because it deals with all sorts of violent, graphic, and revolting matters that I would not put in the hands of young teens. It's just too inappropriate.
I do have one last thing to say, and I think it's important because it has to do with the nature of loving a book. I think we get caught up in reading books that teach us something: strategies for being an effective human, manuals for raising the perfect child, memoirs of those who have gone out into the world and done great things. We get caught up in reading things that make us better people, but sometimes it's okay to read a book simply because you love it. Sometimes I get caught up in trying to pick books that I think you (my readers) will find interesting too, so when it comes to stories like this, I hesitate, because I wonder how many others will feel the same way. I love books about magic and princesses and gothic themes, and I know those aren't for everyone. This book didn't teach me anything, it didn't make me feel like I need to change the world, and it wasn't a story about people that I can relate to. I want to applaud Cokal for her imagination, research, and ability to put pen to paper in a way that had me captivated and sad to turn the final page. It's not a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of fiction, sure, but it's an incredible story, and that makes it enough for me.
Bottom Line Rating: 5/5
Title: The Kingdom of Little Wounds
Author: Susann Cokal
Publisher: Candlewick, 2013
Source: Public Library