Fierce Kingdom

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Amidst the backdrop of a zoo in the night, this heart-stopping thriller tells the tale of a mother and the lengths she will go to protect her son when they find themselves in an active shooter situation.

I have been loving thrillers lately, and the back flap of this one gave me serious pause when it popped up on my Book of the Month choices. Despite my recent terrible experience reading a book set in a zoo (looking at you The Zookeepers Wife), I had to give it a shot.

The zoo setting turned out to be quite a delight, despite the misfortune that befell many of the animals. I applaud the extra layer that came mostly from the main character's knowledge of the zoo and the tidbits brought up by all the time she had spent in the place, pre-shooting. The violence of the shooting had the effect of inversion on the zoo-- the animals and the victims were on one side of the equation, non-threatening and bent on survival, while the shooters took on the animalistic persona of aggressors, hunting with less-than-human violence.

Another notable building block of this story is time. The book is broken up by clock segments-- the entire story is over and done in three hours and five minutes. This in itself speaks to the author's talent as a writer, as it is a huge challenge to stay grounded in the present and create an exciting story despite the minutiae of seconds. Phillips wasn't 100% successful in avoiding the trap of dullness with tiny thoughts and chatter that take up those seconds, but overall I give her points for the concept and the execution and extension of a short timeline.

Another point goes to character development of the mother, Joan. Beautifully fleshed out and so authentically motherly, I loved being inside her mind. At times she is brave and courageous, and at others completely feral and focused on the survival of her flesh and blood. Maybe it was the zoo setting making connections, but she read as a mama bear going to any and every length to protect her cub. It was really a touching and powerful thing to read and there were a handful of quotes regarding their connection that were quite profound. 

Joan's son, Lincoln, was an adorable supporting character. His constant chitter chatter and his inability to grasp the gravity of the situation were both a much-needed relief as well as a huge source of anxiety. Lincoln did, however, exceed his four years of life with his language and actions. This was minorly frustrating for me. Perhaps some four-year-olds use words like "aggression" and "intestine" and can remember details about every president in order, but in this case, the regularity of these overly-advanced instances hit a false note for me.

My one other complaint about Fierce Kingdom is that I wanted more. Across the board, I wanted more action, more tension, more chapters that ended with a cliff hanger or startling moment. I expected more interactions with the shooters, who really only appeared five times or so throughout the story.

Overall, Fierce Kingdom gave us a beautifully fleshed-out and authentic maternal experience and, when they came, I enjoyed the tense moments. There is also something to be said for the complex, albeit very brief, glimpse into the minds of the shooters. Finally, the expanded timeline was inspired and generally well-executed. But I can't get beyond "like" with Fierce Kingdom and can't help but wish the author had pushed the envelope just a bit more throughout. 

PUBLICATION DETAILS: 978-0735224278, 288 pp, Viking, July 25, 2017. Fiction -- Thriller