Review of the Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

Welcome to the Kingdom… where ‘Happily Ever After’ isn’t just a promise, but a rule.
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 went into The Kingdom with high hopes, there was a lot going for it and it was sold to me on the basis that it was a dystopian (not really true) with a strong Westworld feel (totally true). I was immediately struck by the strong narrative style in that we are in both real time and the countdown to where we are at. I loved the decision for Ana to be the narrator with the occasional punctuation of court documents, interview transcripts and testimonies. Her innocence and wonder at the world and all that was happening around and within it made for an easy read. Thats not to say that it’s written like a children’s book but her view of the world and her way of describing her surroundings with detail and wonder really helped pull me into the story.

It’s also smooth read because of the countdown aspect which drives the story forward, it’s clear that there is more going on than meets the eye and having the story unfold little by little in this way was great. The world of The Kingdom feels very much how I think Disneyland may be, however the human staff members dressing up as Disney princesses would be replaced by mechanical beings with human skin – wow that sounds creepy when written down. This does however lead on to the deep mistrust parents seem to have of the Fantasists, whereas the child visitors are clearly awestruck by them, their lack of any real humanity coupled with their technological minds leads to a number of questions from parents.  The roles of the fantasists do feel almost childlike with an outward facade of innocence, but they are constantly working and battling against one another for the top spots; one of the more troubling aspects of this story is that visitors have an App where they get to rate the fantasists out of 10 on a number of different attributes – scarily, one of those being obedience. I suppose that is where the dystopian aspect appears, but asking a child to rate on the obedience of another being sat really uncomfortably with me.

I would have loved to have seen more of the court room drama aspect of the story though, with the blurb citing that we are in “the trial of the century” the balance wasn’t there as much as I would have liked as these snippits really made the story. The addition of the “evidential photo’s” really didn’t work for me as I found they were too stark and made me feel like I wasn’t reading fiction any more. This was a shame because the combination of court documents, emails, interviews and story worked amazingly well. I have to admit as the story went along I thought this was a standalone and the ending didn’t work for me quite as well as it could have done because it wasn’t all wrapped up –  not a failing of the writer but it went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting.

The Kingdom is a fairly short read but it’s edited to perfection and captures that all too rare balance of being succinct without going over the top with descriptions or leaving too much to the imagination. The world was both terrifying at times and also a place that I would love to go and visit, it really is a book of stark contrasts. If you’re a fan of the new Westworld series (before it had an existential crisis) then you will love the Kingdom!

4*

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