Sunday, February 1, 2015

Book Review: The Kingdom of Little Wounds

There are books that I could sit down with and read in an evening. And then there are the books that I will read through in three hours and wish I could turn back time and unread it so I could have the experience of reading it again. Those are the books that captivate me, and books that will haunt me.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds was that book.

Where do I start? Do you ever wish there was a book on a shelf that you didn't believe existed? I loved fairytales. I was given a book of Hans Christian Andersen's stories as a child, and that copy stands in the bookshelf above my bed.

The Kingdom was described by its author Susann Cokal as "a fairy tale about syphilis." It is a fairy tale, albeit a brutal, explicit one,. The four sections of the book are labeled Light, Fear, Darkness, and Death, and I was convinced halfway through the book that there was going to be no happy ending. I was wrong, but the novel still is a dark, dark tale. Cokal spares no details as the disease, with all its lurid details (I warn you, highly graphic), slowly took over a royal family, first with its betrothed princess, and eventually plunged the kingdom into disarray.

What else is in the book? Power. When I was around seven or eight, my grandfather, an amateur Chinese historian, told me stories of court intrigue and murder that fascinated me.  Oh, how beautifully orchestrated the court intrigue of this book was, with all its twists and turns. There was a charming advisor in the novel (who is one of the most grotesque villains I have ever come across in a "YA" book) with a frightening, wolflike ambition--and he sets in motion a plot that nearly brings an entire kingdom to its knees.

Lastly: women. I love deep, complex female characters. Not just the ones with brassy attitudes and the ability to roundhouse kick a man in the face, but the historical type figures who struggled, with their own loud and quiet rebellions, to come into their own power. This novel features three women, trapped in a brutal Renaissance patriarchy: Ava Bingen, a common seamstress, Midi Sorte, a slave girl whose tongue was sliced in half, and Queen Isabel, who was regarded as nothing more than a royal babymaker.  (Like the disease, the sexual exploitation in this novel is rather explicit as well.) The story brought them together, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and I saw each struggle to rise above their own fate. They were not always likeable, but in the end, they felt real to me.

This book was just so beautifully written and executed. The ending was one of the most satisfying I'd read in a long, long time. And the cover. Oh, the cover. Look at that. I think I'll go swoon over it some more.