Fierce Kingdom

review: Marla Cantrell
Gin Phillips
Penguin Books  |  274   pages  |  $16

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips opens on a mild day in October, when Joan is at a zoo with her young son, Lincoln. It is just before five in the afternoon, and the two are in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit where Lincoln is playing with his super-hero action figures, acting out battles where good always prevails.

The zoo will close soon, and Joan tries to hurry Lincoln along. At four years of age, he’s not the easiest person to persuade, but Joan makes a deal with him. When they get to a certain spot in the park, she will pick him up and carry him the rest of the way.

Joan hears small explosions here and there that she believes are fireworks, but when she gets within view of a line of scarecrows installed for Halloween, she notices several have been knocked over. When she looks again, she realizes the scarecrows are actually people, mortally wounded or nearly so.

Then, she sees a lone gunman kick in the door of the
women’s restroom.

The exit is too far away, so her only choice is to turn and run back to the animal exhibits. Since the zoo is familiar to Joan—she has taken Lincoln here regularly since he was born—she has some inside information, such as which animal enclosure is currently empty.

She believes if she can get there, she and Lincoln might survive.
Joan is balancing her tone with Lincoln. He has to know enough to understand he has to be quiet, but she can’t frighten him so much he will break out in sobs. She tells him as much of the truth as she can, and then she tries with all her might to keep him calm.
Her cellphone is equal parts good and evil. It can connect her to her husband, who may be able to alert police to her whereabouts. But it can also, through sound and light, tell the killers where she is. Joan silences her phone, texts her husband, and waits.

Lincoln whispers many questions, some about his rumbling stomach—it is well past his dinnertime by now—and others about the nature of man. Why would anyone want to kill them? She does her best to answer, to keep her voice low, and then she hears the agitated voices of two men, just above her, talking about their killing spree.

Her mind scrambles to take it in. There are at least two killers instead of the one she saw near the entrance. How many more could there be?

You’ll have to read Fierce Kingdom to see what happens next. I will say that this is the most terrifying book I’ve read to review. I think it’s because the book is equal parts a portrait of motherhood and horror story.

Each chapter starts with a time stamp, beginning at 4:55 in the afternoon and ending at 8:05 in the evening. Every second counts, and every minute could bring a misstep that ends Joan and Lincoln’s lives.

If you’re brave enough, this is the book for you. Just plan to read Fierce Kingdom in one or two sittings, because it’s impossible to put down.

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