In a way I was not surprised to read that Gin Phillips didn’t set out to write a thriller when she created FIERCE KINGDOM. Because she hasn’t. Written one that is. In my view anyway FIERCE KINGDOM is a story about the bond between a mother and her son. They are in peril, which I guess is where the thriller tag comes into play, but the focus of the book isn’t really the danger or anything else much that is external to the relationship between Joan and her 4 year old son Lincoln. As a depiction of motherhood, especially motherhood at a time of difficulty, the book is excellent. Superb really. But as a thriller it is…patchy.
The pair are visiting their local zoo one weekday afternoon and are making their way to the exit around closing time when every parent’s worst nightmare starts to unfold. Joan sees people on the ground and is that someone with a rifle? She picks up her son and runs back into the zoo. As it is one of their favourite places to visit Joan knows the zoo well and soon finds a good, safe hiding place. They stay here for a long portion of the story. This makes sense from a survival point of view but is not conducive to the thrilling element of the book. What we do discover in this section is how deep Joan and Lincoln’s relationship is and the extent of Joan’s mothering instinct. Will she, for example, risk her son’s safety to aid other people trying to survive? Should she? Even when she elects to move out of the relative safety of their hiding place there is a strong sense that the only reason is Lincoln’s protection rather than the author’s need to move the plot along.
I found Joan a very believable character. Even when she makes some questionable decisions (one in particular gets criticised in many of the less glowing reviews of the book) I thought she was being consistent with her own previous character. And who among us really knows how they would behave when lugging 40 pounds of much-loved toddler through a darkening landscape populated by gun-toting nutters? I’m sure we would all make some daft moves. I must admit I thought Lincoln a little less credible. He seemed a little too clever with his almost genius-level vocabulary but he is a sweetie and the reader does rather desperately want him to use his inside voice and survive.
But the thriller elements of the book did not work all that well, at times feeling very much forced into the narrative. For example there are a couple of passages where action is seen from a gunman’s viewpoint. They’re not particularly long or insightful and I don’t know what purpose they served other than ticking a box on the list of things modern thrillers ought to have. Also in the last third (or so) of the story Joan links up with two other zoo patrons trying to hide from the shooters: retired teacher Margaret Powell and teenage zoo employee Kailynn. This does help add some more traditional thriller-style elements to the story but it is a bit too late really and the narrative shift is abrupt and jarring. I felt that the book should either be a traditional thriller all the way through, in which case these other characters should have been introduced earlier and fleshed out a little more, or the entire book should have stayed with Joan and Lincoln.
As is often the case these days I suspect this book’s misplaced marketing is largely to blame for my disappointment with aspects of it. Words like ‘electrifying’ and ‘suspense-filled’ do not apply to what I read. But if you are looking for a book that celebrates motherhood in a fresh way then you might want to give FIERCE KINGDOM a go. If audiobooks are your thing then Cassandra Campbell’s narration is a genuine treat.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Cassandra Campbell
Publisher Random House Audio, 2017
Length 8 hours 3 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it