I assume many teenagers would be fine with the complex language and unrelenting parade of horrors in The Kingdom of Little Wounds, and Cokal’s editor was most likely trying to attract them. But are those the teenagers the YA genre targets? I didn’t read YA as a teenager; I resented having the world curated for me, especially by adults who thought they knew what I liked better than I did. I’ve been told YA is more sophisticated today than it was in the 90s, but regardless, the whole point of market-based genres, if not all genres, is to curate literature for certain groups of people with certain tastes. YA readers return to the genre again and again because it promises them at least some of the following things: a coming-of-age arc, a plot-centric narrative, relatively simple language, and no more than one type of trauma, which must be treated seriously. The Hunger Games, for instance, chooses the physical violence of war as its form of trauma; there’s no rape, though wars are full of sexual violence, because that would give the author too much to deal with in a single series. In YA, traumatic events don’t happen just because.
I wish I could begin this review of The Kingdom of Little Wounds (Candlewick 2013) with one of the things I loved about the novel. Perhaps I’d start with Susann Cokal’s writing, which combines the controlled rhythms of literary fiction with the extravagant metaphors of fantasy:
The Kingdom of Little Wounds doesn’t quite have a standard coming-of-age arc. Its plot doesn’t pick up until about halfway through. The language is far from simple. But what I think will put off YA readers the most is its almost weary attitude toward trauma. In this novel, traumatic events happen because traumatic events happened. (The novel takes place in a mythical kingdom likely modeled on sixteenth-century Denmark.) Characters suffer the psychological effects of chronic sexual violence, but Cokal doesn’t always treat individual acts of sexual violence as significant: Midi Sorte, the African character who has conveniently forgotten anything specific about her culture, has suffered so much that her backstory is more or less a trauma montage. In this novel, terrible things occur regularly — things that would horrify even George R. R. Martin, the writer known for terrible things — and the characters who suffer them receive no sympathy, not even from themselves.
The entrenchment of syphilis creates an atmosphere of fear and weariness, both in the city and in the palace. A dizzying variety of cures are offered to the sick, including some concoctions developed by Queen Isabel for her own children. Can you share a bit of your back matter in the book with SLJTeen readers on how this disease became a central feature in The Kingdom of Little Wounds?
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