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
The book description makes it seems like there's some kind of supernatural power at work here. There isn't. The Kingdom of Little Wounds won a Printz Honor. It is published by Candlewick, which only publishes YA and children's books. The Kingdom of Little Wounds is not a YA book. Not in any way. I think someone at Candlewick really wanted to publish this, and so it got marketed as YA, when in truth, it is not.
The author describes this book as "a fairytale about syphilis." Fairytale not so much. But lots of syphilis. Totally. It was meticulously researched. It was very well written. It was, quite frankly, bordering on horror how detailed and descriptive the scenes of death and illness were. But it was not YA. One of the characters was seventeen, but that does not make the book aimed at seventeen year-olds. This book was aimed at someone who wanted to dive in deep to the horrors of the middle ages and medical practice.
There were none of the important themes that YA needs. We did not have a teen struggling with teen issues. We did not have characters searching for who they truly were and identifying a sense of self. Those are important things for YA books, no matter what period in time they are set. There was an epilogue that made no sense with the rest of the book. There was no hope in the book. It presented life, and life was miserable and painful and then you die, usually painfully. And then there was this epilogue trying make things seem like maybe, just maybe, everyone ended up happily ever after. Like they slapped that together to try to make it more YA-like. It didn't work, it just felt out of place. You can't read this whole book and have any hope that things are going to work out well.
So with that being said, let me talk about the book itself, which, outside the fact it wasn't YA and it won a Printz award which annoys me, was quite a good one. If you're into that sort of thing. "That thing" being really detailed descriptions of unpleasant things.
The book is about three women: Ava, once a seamstress, but demoted to being a maid for the sickly royal children; Midi Sorte, a slave who serves the queen and royal children, and Queen Isabel. We are in an unpleasant time period in history. Usually stories from this time are portrayed as a time of knights and princess and great deeds. Royalty and courtly love. The actual time period was a lot more dirty then that. Even the wealthy were not spared from terrible diseases, in particular in this book the "Italian Fire," or as we know it, syphilis. Syphilis, thank goodness, is now easily cured with antibiotics. So simple. But before syphilis was a truly horrible disease that actually caused the sufferer to go mad as it ate your brain and die in horrible pain. It was nasty.
The story line is that all the royal children are sickly, likely not to live to adulthood , of a mysterious illness. They are treated using mercury. We now know how dangerous mercury is, but then, it was a commonly used to combat other poisons. We still do this now. Think of chemotherapy. We still use poisons to try and cure disease. The Queen seems to be a little mad. The King has terrible gastrointestinal problems, and is also in love with a Count. The Count is doing everything in his power to manipulate everyone around him. Ava and Midi Sorte are being used as pawns. It's all about will there or won't there be someone to take the throne once the king dies. Who will it be? Who will have control? And all the little people get stomped on as the royals make their plans and play their games.
There was no pretty facade in The Kingdom of Little Wounds. Even at the beginning of the book, as Isabel's oldest daughter, Sophia, is getting ready for her wedding, and she's in a beautiful dress, it's described how Sophia is caked with makeup to hide her illness, the rash around her mouth and on her hands. It describes the ugliness of the people around her, the smell of sweat and filth. Beautiful things might try to cover up reality, but the ugliness and disease always sweeps through.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds contains a lot of very graphic, very detailed descriptions. It's not going to be for everyone. There are graphic accounts of rape. There are graphic accounts of dying with puss filled boils exploding. There are graphic accounts of vaginal exams. I admire the amount of research Cokal must have done to write this. It made it hard to read, for me. It was just all so awful. It reminded me of the time I read The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey, the only true horror book I've ever read and ever will read. I kept remembering the scenes where it described the room after the monster had been there with the bodies lying around and the scooped out brains. The Kingdom of Little Wounds is right there. It was like reading horror.
So. There we are. Not YA. Well written book. Lots of death and disease.