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The Zoo Is A Terrifying Place In 'Fierce Kingdom'

It's hard to imagine how a scene of a mother buying her child crackers from a vending machine could be one of the more terrifying things in contemporary fiction. But that is the case with Gin Phillips' Fierce Kingdom, in which shooters take over a zoo at dusk, forcing those left behind to hide or be picked off along with the penned-in animals.

Caught up in the terror are three generations of women: Joan, who is visiting with her four-year-old son, Lincoln; Kailynn, a sixteen-year-old who works at the snack bar; and Mrs. Powell, a retired teacher who walks at the zoo rather than at the mall like other senior citizens. Also left behind is a baby whose mother has placed her in a garbage can, either to abandon or save her. Joan, who finds the baby on the aforementioned trip to the vending machines, is not sure: "If you can get over the fact that the woman has literally thrown her child away, it is a fairly brilliant spot," she thinks. "Right near the speakers, the child ... can scream as loud as it wants, and no one will hear."

For Joan, the zoo is a place of terrifying choices, none of them good. How safe are she and Lincoln in their hiding spot? How long can she push his hunger before he throws a tantrum? Will buying crackers save them, or will it give them away? When the mother of the abandoned baby walks by, trying to hush her child, Joan doesn't call out to her. Forced to choose between the village and Lincoln, she chooses Lincoln.

One of the more astonishing things about Fierce Kingdom is how firmly it is a novel about parenthood. Any parent is familiar with Joan's behavior during the shooting: keeping Lincoln silent; thinking ahead to prevent tantrums; getting him fed before mayhem breaks out; choosing only pieces of the truth to tell him to make him feel safe. But in Joan's case, such parental strategizing can mean life or death.

'Fierce Kingdom' explores how entwined violence is in the ordinary, and how for the young, it can be a safe abstraction, or cruelly real.

And these connections have far-reaching consequences. Fierce Kingdom explores how entwined violence is in the ordinary, and how for the young, it can be a safe abstraction, or cruelly real. Kailynn shows no fear: She is unafraid to rescue Joan and Mrs. Powell, because in her home, when her father scares them, it's only as a prank. Joan gives Lincoln a toy alien, a Predator, to play with as he is stalked in real life, and the game keeps him calm. For the two children, that violence is a kind of practice that makes them able to cope.

But that violence is also training. The shooters, rejected as children, idolize a character in a movie, quoting him as they "hunt." Part of Joan's fierceness in protecting Lincoln comes from the fact that her mother never protected her at all. Only Mrs. Powell, who has taught thousands of children, can integrate the two sides in reality: "By her count she has taught four murderers, six rapists, and nine armed robbers. She does not mean to keep track of the numbers, but they add up anyway ... She sees which direction they are headed, usually, and there is nothing she can do about it. Sometimes she has tried, and it is like huffing and puffing at a brick house."

As the novel reaches its conclusion, Joan loses Lincoln. She only finds him because of a game they play, one of the many acts of love that have bonded them inextricably: "She has followed some pale thread from her brain to his. There are a million of these threads between them, brain to brain, and the threads tell her when he is getting hungry and when he is about to try and they tell her he will like the idea of using marshmallows for a tiny astronaut's boot ... this is a perfect thread — and the thread leads her to him."

Because we make fun of helicopter parents for the lengths they go to to keep perfectly safe children even safer, we can can forget that, for children, safety is a kind of love — and that makes Fierce Kingdom a terrifying book, but more importantly, a beautiful one.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for Jezebel.com, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.