The first chapter of Fierce Kingdom, the new novel by Gin Phillips, is labeled “4:55 p.m.”; the final segment is “8:05 p.m.” In those three hours and 10 minutes, two heavily armed young men stalk Joan; her four-year-old son, Lincoln; and the other remaining patrons at a city zoo. Joan and Lincoln have an almost preternatural connection — he anticipates her thoughts and feelings almost as quickly and surely as she does his — and their race to escape the carnage all around bonds them even closer.
Most of the story is seen through Joan’s eyes, but we also dip briefly into the minds of a worker in the zoo’s snack bar, a retired third-grade teacher, and one of the shooters, who, coincidentally, happens to be a former student of the teacher. These diversions from the two main characters ultimately make the novel more complex, but Joan approaches the imperative of protecting her child with such ferocious intelligence and creativity that the novel loses a bit of steam whenever we are away from her perspective.
The book’s setting allows Phillips to riff on a number of strong themes: morality versus instinct, freedom versus captivity, mothering versus masculine aggression. Not surprisingly, the shooters show as little respect for animals as they do for humans, and some of the most disturbing description occurs in the scenes where zoo creatures are killed.
Packaged as a “literary thriller,” Fierce Kingdom provides plenty of thrills — it’s an old-fashioned page-turner — but Phillips also writes with eloquence and real insight into the conflicts facing her characters. The most pronounced ethical dilemmas come when Joan must decide how much effort to expend on saving anyone other than her own son. Her choices aren’t always the expected ones, and Fierce Kingdom, happily, avoids well-trodden narrative pathways, taking readers for a wilder, darker ride.