Title: The Kingdom
Author: Jess Rothenberg
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books (U.K.) / Henry Holt (U.S.)
Release Date: 11th July 2019 (U.K.) / May 28th 2019 (U.S.)
My Rating: 4 Stars
“Glimmering like a jewel behind its gateway, The Kingdom is an immersive fantasy theme park where guests soar on virtual dragons, castles loom like giants, and bioengineered species–formerly extinct–roam free.
Ana is one of seven Fantasists, beautiful “princesses” engineered to make dreams come true. When she meets park employee Owen, Ana begins to experience emotions beyond her programming including, for the first time… love.
But the fairytale becomes a nightmare when Ana is accused of murdering Owen, igniting the trial of the century. Through courtroom testimony, interviews, and Ana’s memories of Owen, emerges a tale of love, lies, and cruelty–and what it truly means to be human.”
I was kindly gifted a copy of this by the publisher. This in no way affects my thoughts and opinions.
“In the end, it does not matter what a story is about. It only matters who gets to tell it.”
I don’t read much Sci-Fi, but honestly this was a pretty successful one! It was entertaining and gripping and I just really enjoyed my time reading it. Set in a futuristic Disneyworld-inspired theme park, where ‘fantasists’ – human-like hybrid robots – entertain and cater to the whims of park guests. This explores human nature vs artificial intelligence and was a really interesting debate on the topic.
I think the reason The Kingdom worked so well was the format – chapters are separated by trial transcripts from a year in the future, when the main character is on trial for murder. This adds a layer of intrigue and interest that splits up the story and makes it more interesting. Not only are we following the actual story, but we are trying to piece together the details of a crime that happened, knowing that’s what the story is leading towards. Without these mixed media inserts, I don’t think it would have worked so well as it would have just been a standard linear story, but this added element really gave the story an edge.
The main theme of this book really was the debate of how ‘real’ is artificial intelligence? If you give a robot an artificial conciousness are they their own person, or are they not a person because their sentience was created by humans? This really tested human compassion and looked at the way we as a species can treat beings we deem as lower than us (particularly men, in a controlling and sexual nature). That being said, I think a lot of the dark content was handled really well as we followed Anna, who is a limited narrator. She has a lesser understanding of the world and we only directly see what she sees, though there is a lot of implication of abuse and dark content off-page. (CWs for violence, murder, abuse, implications of sexual abuse, animal abuse). It seemed that Rothenberg was using shocking content to create a dialogue in her book, rather than just for the shock-tourism that we often see, and I appreciate that.
I do feel like there was an underlying theme in this book of examining the fetishisation of women and minority races. The seven princesses were all based on a racial stereotype with traditional garments from that country – the hybrids even joke amongst themselves about the irony of this at points. None of these artificially created women have any heritage or knowledge of the places they represent, they’ve never been there and obviously don’t have family connections – they are just created in the western world’s image of asian women, african women, indian women. Though this isn’t discussed, and perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it did feel to me like a commentary on using racial minorities for Western entertainment as long as the person is a beautiful woman – as a fetishisation and bastardisation of traditional cultures for white people’s entertainment. I don’t know if I’m explaining my thoughts here well or not, but I just did enjoy thinking deeply into the underlying themes with this book.
I’ve seen some criticisms of the world building, not being able to connect with Anna and the romance being insta-lovey, but honestly I feel like that was the whole point. Whether people enjoy it or not, Anna is a limited narrator. She has no knowledge of the outside world and that’s why it’s not mentioned. She was programmed to trust and be friendly and easy to take advantage of, so of course she falls for the love interest easily, and I also don’t think we are meant to relate to an AI with simplistic intelligence and a lack of understanding of the world and people. I personally thought reading from the point-of-view of an unreliable narrator with a limited understanding was part of what made this book interesting and just meant that as a reader I was reading deeper between the lines.
We also get snippets of the journeys of Anna’s sisters, the other princesses. Though we don’t understand the full arc of what they’ve been through as we only see it through Anna’s eyes, I could fully believe that they’d been on the same complex journey of self discovered that ultimate led to different places for each of them, but whilst the narrator’s perspective is limited, I fully believed the side characters to be fleshed out with their own character arcs.
Overall, whilst this isn’t necessarily my favourite genre and therefore I wasn’t as in love with it as other books, it was really successful in its format and storyline. It had a lot going for it, and I totally whizzed through it really enjoying my time reading it. There was a lot to think about, and I’ve definitely had a lot of thoughts since. I actually read this one with my book club and we had a LOT to chat about with it. I think perhaps if you’re looking for something you don’t need to think about then this one might not be so successful for you, but if you are a weirdo like me who likes to ponder human nature, then you’ll have good amount to sink your teeth into.