Audio book: Hollow Kingdom

by Kira Jane Buxton
Read by Robert Petkoff
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Content: Oh, it’s foul. So much swearing. And pretty gross sometimes, too. It’s in the adult fiction section. Don’t give it to those who are faint-hearted.

There is no getting around it: this book is not for everyone. It’s just not. It swears more than a sailor and there are moment with the “zombies” that are just plain gross. That said, this is the most unique book I’ve read in a long long time, one that just nails the habits of animals and the way the natural world works and comes with a moral: GET OFF YOUR SCREENS HUMANS AND INTERACT WITH NATURE.

That said, our main narrator is S. T. (short for S**t Turd), a domesticated crow that, when his owner succumbs to the disease that has zombified humanity, takes off with his trusty Bloodhound sidekick, Dennis, to figure out how to function in the natural world. There are octopus oracles, cats with delusions of grandeur (are they delusions, really), a murder of stuck-up college crows, an adventure bald eagle, and lots and lots of close scrapes, near misses, and triumphs. And, on top of that, it’s so very funny. (At least I found it so. Even if you don’t read it, go find the first chapter narrated by Genghis Cat — it’s about four chapters in — and read that. Just that. It’s okay if you don’t read anything else. It’s sheer humor perfection.) I’m super picky about humor too, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing out loud as much as I did.

It’s probably mostly in part because this book is sheer perfection on audio. The reader is PERFECT, nailing what I imagine all the animals would sound like, from S. T. and Genghis Cat to Winnie the Poodle and the other animals we encounter throughout the book. There are some thoughtful moments along the way, as well, and I’m serious about the moral: get off the screens and go connect with other people. IN REAL LIFE. It’s what might save us from the zombie apocalypse, in the end.

The Declaration

I found the premise of this book, by Gemma Malley, fascinating. It’s the not-too-distant future, 2140, and a drug — Longevity — has been developed that will extend life forever. It started out innocently enough; curing cancer, AIDS, other diseases… but eventually, someone discovered that cells could be regenerated, sickness cured, and no one would ever die.

The implications of that discovery, though, were profound. If no one ever died, and yet people kept having children, then… well, the Earth’s resources would be overwhelmed. Hence the Declaration. By taking Longevity, you forfeit the opportunity to have kids. Period. No discussions. Yet, some people still end up having kids, for one reason or another, and those children are called Surpluses. They’re illegal, they’re a burden on society. So, when they’re caught, they are stashed away in Surplus Halls, where they’re taught to become “Valuable Assets” to the rest of the Legal society.

That brings us to our main character, Anna. She’s a Surplus, living in Grange Hall since she was 3. She “enjoys” it; as much as she can “enjoy” anything. She’s a Prefect, in charge of a group of other Surpluses, she’s nearly 16, and working toward being a Valuable Asset. She’s determined to pay for her parents’ Sin of having her. That is, until Peter comes into her life.

Peter isn’t like the other Surpluses; for one, he’s lived on the Outside for 15 years, having only recently been caught. He doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t want to. He really only has one purpose: to rescue Anna from a life of being a Surplus.

Initially, I liked the set up — Surpluses as slaves, brainwashed into believing the things that the Head Mistress beats into them. The book is full of the ethical questions and the interesting implications of the choice for Humanity to live forever.

She remembered a time, when she was young, when energy was still plentiful and people thought that recycling was enough. Before islands started to be submerged by the sea, before the Gulf Stream changed Europe into the cold, grey place it was now, with short summers and long, freezing winters. Before politicians were driven to action because infinite life meant that they, not some future generation, would suffer if the world’s climate wasn’t protected.

Peter’s efforts to convince Anna to escape were interesting, too. How do you convince someone who had been so indoctrinated in something that the thing was wrong? How do you get someone like that to risk everything to escape into the Unknown? For three-fourths of the book, I enjoyed it, relished the ride. It was haunting, so close to what could be in real life. The Head Mistress, Mrs. Pincent, was brilliantly and chillingly cruel, at the beginning:

“Hit her,” ordered Mrs. Pincent, who was now walking towards her. “Make her know her Sins. Help her to learn from her mistakes and to understand what being a Surplus means. Make her see that she is unwanted, a burden; that every step she takes along these corridors are steps that she has stolen. Make her see that she is worthless, that if she dies no one will care, that in fact the world will be better off with her not trespassing on it. Make her understand all that, Anna.”

But on page 274, the book made, for me, a serious mistake: Mrs. Pincent got a backstory. One that was possibly supposed to make me feel for her, make me understand the gravitas of the decisions that needed to be made. Unfortunately, it just made me annoyed. It was so predictable. I thought the book saved itself a couple of pages later, but by the end, I was rolling my eyes. All the tension, all the chilliness, all the ethical implications were gone. Kaput. In short: the ending just didn’t live up to my expectations. It could have been so much better.

Which is too bad, since the rest of the book was quite good.