When I was in college, one of the exercises in my Children’s Lit class was to write a story that incorporated two completely unrelated subjects: T-rexes and ballet, bodybuilders and allergies, etc. I have a hunch that The Kingdom of Little Wounds must have originated from a similar exercise, as Cokal’s book combines two subjects that are totally at odds: fairy tales and syphilis.
Yes, you read that correctly. This is a fairy tale about syphilis.
I checked out a lot of other reviewers’ opinions prior to starting The Kingdom of Little Wounds. Many of those reviews were negative and dwelled on how gross and horrifying and screwed up the book is. As a result, I went into this novel fully expecting to hate it. Even while reading I kept telling myself, “This is it. Enough. I’m going to stop reading and take The Kingdom of Little Wounds back to the library.”
And yet I didn’t – couldn’t – actually put it down. In fact, I read the whole thing in a single sitting. When I reached the last page I realized, to my astonishment, that I had not only finished the novel, but enjoyed it as well.
That’s not to say those other reviewers were wrong. This book IS gross and horrifying and screwed up, but in a really bizarre way that’s part of its…dare I say appeal? The whole point of the aforementioned exercise in my Children’s Lit class was to help us recognize that the most unlikely pairings can also be the most evocative; the contrast is what draws and holds a reader’s attention. By imposing disease, sex, violence, and other nastiness over the elements of a fairy tale, Cokal has made her book striking and unforgettable.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds is set in Skyggehavn, a kingdom maintaining a façade of wealth and grandeur while sinking slowly into a figurative pit of illness and rot. In this land where magic, superstition, science, and horror blur together, there are gaping holes that open in the earth; a raving queen; a royal nursery full of oozing, mewling children too weak to leave their beds; and a court in perpetual mourning. Behind closed doors, power-hungry players deal in blackmail, violence, and lust while the kingdom languishes under a shroud of lunacy and disease.
In the midst of this corruption are the three women around whom the story centers: Ava Bingen, a lovelorn yet hopeful seamstress; Midi Sorte, a mutilated black servant; and Isabel, Skyggehavn’s unhinged queen. Each of these women is in a perilous position in the court, caught up in the plotting and treachery of their male peers. The machinations of the men gradually drive the women into one another’s paths, and they must decide whether they will be rivals or allies in the fight to escape the whirlpool of the cesspit that is Skyggehavn.
The story of these women is captivating but admittedly hard to stomach at times. This book is brimming with gross and disturbing content. There’s degradation, sickness, stench, bodily functions and secretions, sliced tongues, horrific deaths characterized by seizures and bursts of blood, rape…the list goes on and on. Even the relatively happy moments, few as they are, are tempered by dirt and lowness. First love is heralded with bugs and spiders in the bed. Grand feasts with sugared delicacies and dancing are only a prelude to the horrific death of a young girl on her wedding night.
I’m not harping on these details to discourage you from reading The Kingdom of Little Wounds – on the contrary, I highly recommend this book. I’m just trying to prepare you in case you’re squeamish or bothered by very mature content. I don’t want anyone to go into this book thinking it’s a happy little fairy tale, only to be blindsided when all the craziness starts.
You’re probably asking, “Angela, WHY would I want to read this book after you’ve gone to such lengths to explain how messed up it is?” Because as dark and gruesome as this book can be, it is undeniably transfixing. When I reached the last page and closed the book for the final time it was like I was waking up from a trance.
Moreover, Cokal is a fantastic storyteller. The intelligent twists and turns will amaze you and leave you marveling at her cleverness. Towards the ending, when I began to suspect how everything would play out, I actually laughed out loud in appreciation. Everything came together ingeniously.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re a brave – and again, not squeamish – reader, I highly suggest this book.