Fierce Kingdom
Date Published15 January 2017
Price£ 12.99

Fierce Kingdom

by Gin Phillips

A family trip to the zoo turns into a fight for survival – but it is not the animals Joan must fear.


It’s almost closing time and Joan and her four-year old son, Lincoln, are preparing to leave the zoo. But as they head towards the exit, Joan senses danger in the unusual quiet that has descended. The popping in the distance is not hydraulics or fireworks. The shapes on the ground are not fallen scarecrows. There is a gunman running riot in the zoo grounds. Joan and her son run away from the entrance and look for somewhere to hide.

Joan thinks they are safe, believing it is only a matter of time until the police arrive and take the gunman down. But when one killer becomes two, and Joan and Lincoln are nearly found, thanks to a woman and her screaming baby, it is time to run.

Even though spree killing is all too prevalent and horrific, using it as the plot for a thriller had me chomping at the bit – and even more so with the setting in a zoo. I could imagine the potential for ramping up the suspense with so many four-legged predators on top of an assassin. As for a mother with a four-year old son (with his inevitable noisy tantrums) trying to escape death – bring it on!

I was slightly disappointed when I opened the book and discovered it is written in the third person. Even though it is in the present tense, which gives a sense of the immediate, the point of view drives a small wedge between the characters and the reader. However, most of the chapters focus on Joan, which provides a degree of intimacy. The other chapters give the reader an insight into the simplistic but troubled mind of one of the gunmen, and a brief look at two of the other people in hiding. From all the viewpoints, the stream of consciousness style of narrative is unfortunately generic. Instead of having a sense of seeing into the minds of the characters, their thoughts, behaviour and actions come across as fact-feeding. This, combined with a large dose of indiscreet backstory and uninteresting padding, slowed the pacing.

Phillips has injected those horrendous questions a parent must ask themselves in this kind of scenario: run or hide? Distract or defend? Help others or focus on your own child’s wellbeing? Leave your child somewhere safe or keep him close? Tell your child to be quiet and risk a noisy tantrum or let him get out of control? Kill or be killed? However, these questions never snapped and growled at me in the way I would expect of a woman in hyper-maternal protective mode. In places, they hardly came across as dilemmas. So, although we get a reasonable insight, the writing style didn’t take advantage of this to its fullest.

The lack of animal exploitation surprised me. The animals could have been used to enhance atmosphere, provide additional danger, thwart Joan’s escape. Although there were one or two that became victims, Phillips spends more time on Lincoln’s toy dinosaurs than the live animals.  Although the setting is clearly a zoo, I had no sense of its size. I kept asking Joan why she just didn’t get to the farthest point from the entrance and climb out.

Perhaps I am in the minority, but although this is a short, fast read, and one with a degree of suspense, I never really felt it went anywhere. It seemed the conclusion was an attempt to compensate for this. That said, I am sure the emotional questions asked in Fierce Kingdom will resonate with mothers, as it did with me.

Reviewed 22 July 2017 by Kati Barr-Taylor

Kati Barr-Taylor lives in her ‘cosy pigsty’ in the Dordogne. She satisfies her literary cravings by translating, writing, editing and reading.