In Gin Phillips’ latest novel, “Fierce Kingdom,” a visit to a city zoo becomes a nightmare as Joan tries to protect her four-year-old son, Lincoln. Leaving the zoo at closing time, Joan realizes that the sounds she hears are gunshots, and that people and animals are being killed at random.
For the next two and a half hours, Joan, with Lincoln under her arm or close by, does everything she can to keep the two of them safe. At first she wonders if they, like trapped animals, should try to escape, but the killers are at the entrance. Since a day at the zoo is Lincoln’s favorite pastime, Joan knows every inch of the place, but the buildings and shelters she could run to are the very ones the killers can head for or smash open.
Joan doesn’t yet know who these killers are, or where they might next appear. The violent world that has trapped her forces her to remain calm when she is terrified, to warn her son of danger but not panic him, to run—in flimsy sandals, I might add—when she’s exhausted, and to find safety in a land of savage beasts.
Joan thinks of all the possibilities and revises them as she must. When Joan encounters other hostages to this misfortune—a snack bar worker, a retired teacher, a baby hidden in a trashcan—she wonders, is she responsible for them, too? Her main duty, as she knows, is to keep Lincoln alive through all of the horror.
“Fierce Kingdom” is billed as a thriller, and rightly so, but the novel is driven as much by character as by action. In two brief chapters, before Joan hears the pop of bullets, Phillips brings mother and child vividly to life. Any attentive parent will recognize Lincoln’s love of word play and superheroes, and the way Joan is living half in her son’s world and half in her own.
While Lincoln plays with his action figures, Joan can pretend excitement as her son tells her that Thor has punched Loki and saved the day. These mother-son exchanges may seem incidental, but the description and dialogue will have later implications. When Joan casually tells her son that Captain America has a shield to protect him, she doesn’t realize that Lincoln will soon need a shield of his own. Even something as simple as Joan’s getting poked in the hip with one of Lincoln’s plastic spears will have an ominous parallel later in the book.
Like viewing a painting by a master, “Fierce Kingdom” offers new discoveries with every reading. Gin Phillips deserves all of the praise she has received for this exceptional novel, and I’m nominating her central character, Joan, for mother of the year.
Reviewer Kirk Weixel is professor emeritus of English at St. Francis University, Loretto. He teaches literature and creative writing.