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Review: Fierce Kingdom

As excited as I am about each of the books I choose from Book of the Month Club, I’m acquiring a little backlog of them. So I’m proud of myself for reading at least one of my (two) new August selections within the month! It wasn’t only satisfying to cross a title off a list, though– Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom is an incredible read.

fiercekingdomAbout the book: Joan and her four year-old son, Lincoln, frequently spend their afternoons in the zoo after Lincoln’s school session. On this day, though, they’re far back in the children’s play area, completely alone, and cutting it close to make it back to the gates before closing time. Joan hears a noise she can’t place, until she sees bodies littering the ground on the path to the zoo’s exit. She spends the next three hours running and hiding from gunshots and “bad men,” trying to keep her son quietly obedient without frightening him. Animals are loose, the few straggling visitors who were trying to leave just before closing are running amok, and unexplained gunshots cut through the air near and far as night falls and the police fail to take the situation under control.

“The glass makes all the difference. A dog or cat– a domesticated thing– is totally different. A wild animal in front of you, not a pet but a real animal, is every impulse all at once. You believe it is sweet and affectionate, and this can be true, but it will also make you bleed without remorse. […] You cannot know a wild thing.”

There are a lot of great technical aspects to this book– the level of suspense worked into those three hours of panic, the focus on the psychology of the characters, the setting of the zoo, the age of the boy, the careful but not-boring descriptions of each feature of the zoo. But there are also a few details that felt weak. For instance, there are chapters mixed in with Joan’s that highlight the other characters’ perspectives. Is the purpose of these chapters to humanize the characters and make the reader more sympathetic to each of their cases? If that’s true, I think they’ve failed. Joan has such a level of observation that we learn more about these other characters, and perhaps feel sorrier for them, when we see them through her eyes. With the exception of the chapters of the gunman’s perspective, which add suspense to Joan’s terror (although they don’t give the reader much explanation of his motives, which feels like another failure), the book would’ve been stronger if it eliminated those extra chapters and stuck to Joan.

“The outside world is irrelevant. It is, somehow, clarifying to feel her shirt snagging against the bricks behind her and to feel the pain in her left shoulder where Lincoln’s weight pulls and to know that it is only the two of them, and it has been from the beginning.”

I also thought some of the plot details went a bit wonky. For one thing, there’s a time when Joan finds a supposedly soundproof room. She’s suspicious of how safe and soundproof it really is, and yet even as the girl who opens the room is talking about hearing the vibration of the vending machines through the walls, and the sound of a door opening, and the shots from the gunman, Joan never seems to pick up on these details as proof that sound passes through the room.

I was also skeptical of Joan’s inuries. She’s only in the zoo for three hours, large chunks of which are spent in stationary hiding. She’s resourceful. So it surprised me that she would be so careless about wounds– that she wouldn’t seem to mind at all when injury happened accidentally, that occasionally she would cause or exacerbate her own injuries, and that when she noticed she was injured she did nothing to care for the wounds. She seems like the sort of person who would be conscious of the dangers of blood loss or an inability to move certain parts of her body. She’s worried from the beginning about her sandal breaking, but she never takes a moment to check it and see if anything can be done to prevent that. Carelessness about her personal well-being is, to an extent, understandable while she’s so concerned with her son’s safety, but she can’t keep him safe if she’s dead. It doesn’t make sense for her to be so observant about everything around her and yet remain so blind to her own condition.

“She wonders, again, if God is punishing her for thinking her child is more important that the other woman’s child. She would do it again in a heartbeat, cannot really regret it even with the guilt weighing on her like wet wool, and she wonders, sometimes, about her ideas of God.”

Fierce Kingdom‘s strength lies in the shocking psychological layer to the thrilling tale. There is not a lot of fast-paced action, although there is some, but the real thrill originates in the shock value of what this mother will do or not do to keep her own son quiet, hidden, and safe. Would she separate from her son? Would she face a gunman? Would she face a loosed animal? How will she act toward the other people fleeing and fighting for their lives? How far will desperation drive her to go?

“This would be different if she were alone. If she had been strolling through the zoo by herself when the gunfire started. She would have run, surely. She would have hidden. But then what? She is reasonably strong and reasonably fast, and she is smart, and if she were alone, she would by now have decided that she should not be waiting around for anyone to save her.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve seen mixed reviews for this one, so I started out a little wary; I was pleasantly surprised. You know that tone of writing in thrillers that keeps the reader feeling like something’s off even before the action starts? This book gave me that feeling from the first page to the last one, and constantly kept me guessing even though it’s more of a race against the clock than a mystery. This isn’t a tale of a quest for answers, it’s an exploration of humanity, and it felt alarmingly plausible. Another BOTM win. 🙂

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like new psychological thrillers with an eerie atmosphere and a close look at character, check out Ruth Ware’s new release, The Lying Game. Although the plot of this one is very different (a murder mystery involving four girls who did something stupid in their days of new teenage friendship), there is also a small child in this one, with a protective mother who must stay one step ahead of the danger.
  2. Another new psychological thriller choice with high stakes and introspective focus is Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water, a well-crafted mystery of women who’ve turned up dead in the Drowning Pool. Practically everyone in town looks suspicious in one way or another, but someone knows the truth.

What’s next: I’m currently reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is a classic fantasy/adventure that I know some small details of (Gandolf, a ring, a quest, a dragon, etc.) but not much else yet. I tend to start my classic of the month too late, but I think I will finish this one before the end of the month, and (/because) I think I’ll enjoy it.

Do you prefer classics with solid reviews behind them, or new releases you can help the book community “discover” by taking a chance before it’s proven to be great?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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