"Fierce Kingdom" By: Gin Phillips

Oct 30, 2017

“Fierce Kingdom”

Author: Gin Phillips   

Publisher: Viking

Pages: 274

Price: $ 25.00 (Hardcover)

“Fierce Kingdom” is Birmingham novelist Gin Phillips’ third novel and it is heartening to see the way this Birmingham writer has shaped a fine career with three very different novels, never repeating herself.

“The Well and the Mine,” 2007, was set northwest of Birmingham in a coal mining town in 1931. This novel is gritty/realistic—a family struggles to survive in hard times.

Her second novel, “Come In and Cover Me,” features a 35-year-old woman, an archaeologist working at a dig in New Mexico. The protagonist, Ren, is visited from time to time by the ghost of her deceased brother and then, more surprisingly, by the ghosts of Indian women from centuries ago.

“Fierce Kingdom” takes on an entirely different challenge. Joan and her son, Lincoln, are enjoying a visit to what is probably the Birmingham Zoo. Joan is a hardworking young attorney and these visits are quiet, treasured moments for her. She and her four-year-old play, making up stories, mainly about superheroes, and in the zoo visit out-of-the way habitats. Almost at closing time, nearly five-thirty, they are in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit when Joan hears popping sounds, then later, some sirens.

This is contemporary America. It doesn’t take Joan very long to realize what is happening, right there where she is, not in Connecticut or Los Vegas.

Joan knows she and Lincoln have to hide, to remain invisible and be perfectly quiet, but four-year-olds are often noisy and restless. And, at first, Joan does not want to alarm Lincoln, to tell him that there are crazy shooters in the zoo. We learn these vile young men are killing some of the caged animals as well as their human prey, which infuriated me to a degree I did not expect.

We see Joan using every motherly trick she knows to engage Lincoln, keep him calm, quiet, all the while having to remain calm herself. They earnestly discuss Lincoln’s imaginary friends, the powers of Thor, and talk about television programs they have enjoyed. At one point she sees some dead bodies, confirming her fears, but Lincoln doesn’t.

The novel is not static; mother and son do have to move around a little. Lincoln needs to go potty. Hungry, they sneak up and dare to use a vending machine near the snack bar and for a while hide together with two other frightened women.

“Fierce Kingdom” is, in its way, also a psychological thriller, an exploration of reaction to fear, but also a demonstration of the ferocity of mother love. Joan will do ANYTHING to save Lincoln, make no mistake about it.

There are some dramatic scenes of action involving the teen killers, and with the other zoo visitors in hiding, but mostly it is Joan and Lincoln, and hiding quietly is not the natural narrative arc of the thriller. Gin Phillips has set herself a very difficult task here. The situation is tense, in fact life or death, but it’s important that nearly nothing happen, and a state of terror and tension is hard to maintain for 270 pages.

Further, Phillips tells her story in dramatic real time. The novel opens at 4:55 and closes at 8:05. Reading a page a minute, one could complete the book in 4 hours and 34 minutes, not much longer than the time consumed by the action.

“Fierce Kingdom” is a bold and interesting experiment, a tour de force that is admirable, mostly successful and entirely readable.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.