The Kingdom of Little Wounds
Spoiler Rating: Low
I’ve just read The Kingdom of Little Wounds. My reaction, in a single word: Wow.
Don’t misread my use of a period instead of an exclamation mark there; that is a very pregnant “wow,” not a sarcastic one.
On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the Scandinavian city of Skyggehavn prepares to fete the occasion with a sumptuous display of riches: brocade and satin and jewels, feasts of sugar fruit and sweet spiced wine. Yet beneath the veneer of celebration, a shiver of darkness creeps through the palace halls. A mysterious illness plagues the royal family, threatening the lives of the throne’s heirs, and a courtier’s wolfish hunger for the king’s favors sets a devious plot in motion.
Here in the palace at Skyggehavn, things are seldom as they seem — and when a single errant prick of a needle sets off a series of events that will alter the course of history, the fates of seamstress Ava Bingen and mute nursemaid Midi Sorte become irrevocably intertwined with that of mad Queen Isabel. As they navigate a tangled web of palace intrigue, power-lust, and deception, Ava and Midi must carve out their own survival any way they can.
Sounds not unlike your typical young adult political fantasy, right? A couple of young women with limited power thrown into courtly machinations, where they’ll surprise everyone with their inherent ability to navigate the dangers and make names for themselves. These are girls destined to end up as admired and respected heroines. You know, the usual. Right?
Nope. It’s a hundred times better.
It moved me to sobbing.
I don’t want to spoil the plot or character arcs for you, so let me just assure you that holy crap this book is powerful. Holy crap.
I could read Cokal’s writing style forever.
Cokal has officially been added to the (short) list of authors who make me reread every sentence, slowly, savoring each word. And in case you think I’m exaggerating: it took me three hours to get through the first forty pages.
This is how Cokal describes the dead princess, who’s been laid out for an examination by the physicians:
Do you see that? How she moves from a gruesome reality to beautiful fancy (even the sunlight adores the princess) to lovely details (the drape of exquisite cloth) and back into gruesomeness? That is this book. Cokal leads the reader straight into the most horrifying images, and I for one am ecstatic to be led, because the leading is so gorgeously executed.
(At one point I put my coffee down mid-sip because a particular sentence churned my stomach. I consider this a great success.)
Cokal’s research abilities are to die for.
You know how I always get swept away in my research of cultures and religions and land formation and historical events (and so on, forever) when I should just be writing my stories already? Cokal’s depth and application of research is what I aspire to. I have never read a young adult book so vividly set within its time and place, and I’m relishing every tiny detail.
And there are a lot of details. As a medical-scientist person, I know you’ll get a kick out of the development and use of what I’ll loosely describe as “medicine,” and the beliefs about what affects one’s health. (Poisonous star-gases conducted into the body via the eyes, especially dangerous.) Some choice advice from the physician for the man hoping to impregnate his wife:
Which reminds me of the fertility episode of the Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine podcast, which I don’t remember if I’ve ever told you about. If I haven’t, I’m sorry. It’s amazing and you will love it.
But back to the book: tons of historically-accurate details. Even the typeface the book is printed in is historical; it’s called Bembo, and was designed in late 15th-century Venice. Each new piece of evidence that Cokal really knows the intricacies of life in 16th-century Scandinavia makes my detail-obsessed heart skip a beat.
Which leads me to:
This book is brutal(ly honest), and not for everyone.
I do tend to get frustrated and annoyed by the number of fantasy books out there, adult and young adult both, that whip up an idealized version of, say, 12th-century England and populate it with characters formed by 21st-century preconceptions of what 12th-century people were like. You know what I’m talking about: everyone bathes regularly, the clothes are all wrong, and too many people have horses and their own private beds.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds approaches everything about its setting and its people with utmost honesty–from the bugs plaguing everyone to the king who is always attended while he evacuates his bowels (he gets the gold medal for Crohn’s disease, by the way).
So why isn’t this book for everyone? Because the portrayal of the servant girls’ powerlessness in the face of sexual abuse is also unflinchingly honest, and it’s certainly going to turn some readers away.
What’s this book most visibly concerned with? Well, Here are the first two sentences/paragraphs, which’ll clue you in:
So what do we have?
- Someone doomed to death
- A servant
- A servant standing in a blatantly submissive/helpless posture
- Someone (of high rank) falling apart
- Someone (of high rank) falling apart while no one moves to help her
See a common thread here yet? I thought so.
TKoLW is about power/lessness in a big way. Too big and complex a way to really do any justice to in a letter, for sure. So let me just sketch out the two aspects I think you’ll be particularly interested in.
Point the First: Language
So here you have your two viewpoint characters: Ava, the illiterate seamstress whose tongue runs away with her, and Midi, the (secretly) literate maid whose native language has been lost to her, and whose tongue was mutilated to prevent her from saying a man’s name. (Not one of my favorite scenes.)
These young women live in a world where the powerful have language at their disposal and the weak are expected to be silent. Their home is a palace full of servants who communicate amongst themselves in voices that nobles are unable (too proud, too accustomed to forgetting that servants exist) to hear. It’s a kingdom shaped by secrets and lies–and yeah, as gorgeous as the court itself is, with its elaborate tapestries and bright jewels and goblets made of spun sugar, the kingdom is not a beautiful place to live, regardless of your rank.
Of course, I don’t mean to say the weak actually are silent–or even that they’re weak. If there’s something else this book loves, it’s subversion.
As just a quick and non-spoilery example: Midi and Ava both use language in their own quietly powerful ways to cope with the ugliness of their lives. Midi writes her story down in all its gritty details, reclaiming herself and her life in the process, while Ava tries to escape into fairy tales. She soothes herself, her fellow maids, even the dying royal children with stories of princesses overcoming evil after brutal, seemingly endless trials. But Ava isn’t as comforted as she’d like to be:
A wavering edge of hopefulness versus acceptance of grim reality is everywhere in the story, and it is fantastic.
Point the Second: Women’s Bodies
Oh, goodness. Women’s bodies are not their own.
From the very first page, the royal ladies are described as objects possessed by the kingdom: they are the “kingdom’s treasure,” and their bodies “must be protected like a relic shut in a box.” How beautifully dehumanizing!
Even better, female bodies are specifically controlled by men. Take that doomed-to-die princess, for example. She’s twelve and preparing to be married off at the beginning of the story. Her mother believes she’s too young to marry (to say nothing of the horror of marrying a Swede), but Princess Sophia has started menstruating and therefore deemed a fit bride by her father.
Turns out, though, that the king had paid his chief physician very well to “shake those courses free from Sophia’s womb.” Way to manipulate your child’s body for the sake of political alliance, King! Well done!
And boy does Queen Isabel have a difficult time of it when her body is in the same room as a physician. During her regular gynecological examinations (so vividly, cringe-inducing-ly described), a sheet bisects Isabel’s body so the physicians cannot see her face as they inspect her genitals–removing the person from the body and the body from the person–and she is strictly forbidden to speak. (Sound familiar?) Of course, when Isabel does break tradition and address the three physicians during an examination, this happens:
That’s right. Ladies speaking out of turn are about as alarming as farting or peeing on your gynecologist.
And, yes, there is a lot of sexual abuse. It’s as factually described as Isabel’s exams and the dying children’s oozing, crusting sores, because it is as much a fact of the maids’ lives as the invasive exams are part of Isabel’s life, and their diseased bodies part of the children’s lives.
These women have little to no power over their bodies; they exist in them, and what happens to them must be endured. But because these horrors (abuse, inspection, disease, control) are so common, so generally accepted as the norm, they are not as traumatizing to the characters as they would be to the book’s modern audience.
Still, I can easily see why there are so many readers out there who couldn’t finish the book.
Yep, I highly recommend this book–to people who’re interested in dark stories and who can stomach the sexual abuse. Not a book for everyone, but it’s fantastic inside and out for its chosen audience.
Will I rush out and buy my own copy? Gorgeous as it is (so gorgeous!), the answer is no. The writing is superb, the characters vivid, the plot and theme powerful–but this isn’t a kingdom I want to visit, these aren’t people I want to become friends with, and their story isn’t uplifting enough to make me feel particularly good after reading it.
But I do love it, in this awed, cringing way, and I know others will love it too.
Scritch the cats for me,