“Fairy Tale About Syphilis” May Alienate Some Readers With Graphic Content

Source: Author Website
The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal (Candlewick, 2013, 576pp.)

In this fantasy/historical fiction novel that the author herself describes as a “fairy tale about syphilis,” the reader is treated to a sickeningly realized portrait of court life in 16th century Scandinavia. Led by a pair of well-meaning but impressionable royals, the court is a place of madness and filth where courtiers and servants alike struggle for power. At the center of this quagmire is Ava Bingen, a disgraced seamstress, and Midi Sorte, a mute African slave who nurses the royal children through their many illnesses. Thrust together by circumstance, the two girls initially dislike each other: Midi is naturally mistrustful, while Ava is open and friendly. However, when conditions at court worsen in the wake of royal discord, the two realize how much they need each other if they want to make it out of the kingdom of Skyggehavn alive.

Little Wounds is a difficult book to review. Some readers have found its content to be grossly inappropriate for teens, even for the very mature ones. However, I think we shouldn’t ask “Is it appropriate?” so much as: “Will they actually be able to finish it?” You see, while Little Wounds is a beautifully written tribute to the old style of fairy tales (such as the story of the murderous Bluebeard and his decapitated former wives), I doubt its grotesque beauty and morbid sense of justice will be universally appreciated. One can only tolerate so many passages of rape, syphilis-induced madness, and bizarre 16th century medical treatments before the more sensitive of us will cry, “Enough!” and go read something else. That aside, I’d still recommend it, but only for the adventurous, and for certain brave readers ages 16-Up.

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