3.25 Stars

Jess Rothenburg
Published May 2019

*Review by Alexa*

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.

When I was just a wee lass, my parents introduced me to a science fiction movie that would quickly become one of my favorites: Westworld.  Released in 1973 and starring a dashing Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger, Westworldwas everything I want in my science fiction. It was smart, haunting, topical, and just really damn entertaining.  Many moons later, HBO has remade the story—for better and worse—into a much more elaborate and intense saga.  The concept of Westworld(androids gaining sentience and turning on their creators) wasn’t new in 1973, but putting the AI in an adult theme park was a novel approach and a fascinating way to express the ideas of agency, human morality, and even what it means to be alive.  What makes someone alive, and what agencies do they then have, is such a fascinating question, and one that has haunted me since watching the original movie.

Knowing all of this, you can understand, Dear Reader, why I was so excited to dive into Jess Rothenberg’s The Kingdom.  From the description, it sounded like Westworldthemes and storyline but in Disneyland and told from the AI’s perspective.  Um, yeah, sign me up.  Unfortunately, The Kingdom didn’t quite live up to my expectations, and by the end I was more than a little bored.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike the book necessarily, but I was left feeling rather unsatisfied.  It’s like when you are hungry, and you’ve spent all day looking forward to a special meal.  Then, when you finally eat, the meal is ok, but there isn’t nearly enough of it, and you are left with a slight disappointment and an only partially satiated hunger.

In the end, it does not matter what a story is about.  It only matters who gets to tell it.

So what was so unsatisfying? First, the plot is too underdeveloped, especially for a book borrowing so heavily on the sci fi that came before it. Setting the story in a family friendly Disney-esque park was a great idea, and I loved the juxtaposition of the dark themes against a sparkly backdrop, but the setting isn’t enough to carry the story.  The plot also felt more than a little confused.  Is this a book about agency and what it means to be alive?  Is the book about coming to life through the power of love?  Is it a murder mystery?  The answer, it would appear, is all of the above, but the story is nowhere near strong enough to support all of those themes, and so all of them felt gooey and underdone.  Had Rothenberg focused on just one of these—or even two of them—I think the book would have been stronger.

The characters are somewhat underdone as well.  I was fascinated by the idea of the Fantasists, but the only one we get to know at all is Ana (the MC) with the rest being so unrealized as to be indistinguishable from each other.  Two of the Fantasists are especially interesting for reasons that would stray into spoiler territory, and the story would have been so much stronger had we known more about them.  We only get one first person point of view, Ana’s, and that does a disservice to the book as it limits the world building, action, backstory, and understanding to a flat character that is intentionally and understandably incredibly naïve throughout the majority of the book.  Ana isn’t a bad character, she’s just one that feels flat and one-dimensional even as she is supposed to be evolving.  Don’t even get me started on the so-called love interest, Owen.  It’s been a few weeks since I read The Kingdom, and I can’t remember anything about him.  The story could have fully worked without him and the contrived romantic storyline, and the book would have been stronger and more streamlined.

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Photo by Alexa

Ok, now let’s get into the meat of the tale and talk about the themes.  I’m going to talk for a minute about rape and sexual abuse, so if that is a no-go for you then please proceed to the next paragraph with hug from me. This shouldn’t be a spoiler at all because if you understand human nature in the slightest then it will come as no surprise to you that the Fantasists are being used for sex, which in turn is tantamount to rape and sexual abuse when it’s an AI.  Exploring this abuse and what it means for both the humans and the AI doesn’t bother me, and, to be honest, it’s exactly what I expected.  What does bother me is that the abuse is only hinted at and never addressed head on even after some pretty jarring events occur.  If an author is going to go down that path, then they need to be all in. Tiptoeing around something like rape does a disservice to the characters, the story, and gives the impression that it should remain in the shadows.  This is even more important when the book in question is YA and enormous amounts of people reading it are so impressionable.

The other themes of the story—objectification, the concept of beauty, misogyny in general—are treated as something in the background; present but rarely fully addressed. Again, it felt underdeveloped and no idea was every fully formed or taken to where it needed to go for a successful book.

Like Wendy, John, and Michael Darling on the night Peter Pan taught them to fly—I think one happy thought. In my pocket, I have a knife.

What I did really enjoy is the mixed formatting of the story.  Ana’s first person narration is, mercifully, broken up by interviews, time jumps, and court room transcripts.  This is arguably the most successful aspect of The Kingdom, and provided for some much needed interest as the story drew to a rushed and confused ending.  Yes, Dear Reader, we have another supposed stand-alone that feels more like the first of a series.  Sigh.  This pattern is getting really old.

Overall, I see what Rothenberg was trying to do, but everything needed to be better developed and just pumped up.  I needed more story, more mystery, a stronger MC, and the analogies and themes needed to be addressed head on.  Had Rothenberg taken one idea and ran with it (and possibly had more than one POV), the story would have been stronger, more developed, and more interesting.  The Kingdomis a quick read, and someone who isn’t quite as enmeshed in science fiction might enjoy it more than I did.  It’s possible that my expectations were too high, but if I didn’t have high expectations then why would I read it?

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