Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg
Release Date - May 28, 2019
Publisher Website - Raincoast Books
Publisher Social Media - Twitter
Pages -  352 pages
My Rating - 5/5
**received from the publisher for an honest review**

Here is the Goodreads synopsis
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(TM) 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. 
If you took Westworld, mixed it with a true crime podcast, and added in some Disney theme park elements you would get The Kingdom. A story about a place that has a darkness under the happily ever afters it promises. Jess Rothenberg has written a unique story that not only entertains but causes the reader to think and ask questions of themselves.

Ana's voice, for me, was so distinct it made her a really strong character. It felt like the author had a very clear sense of who this character was, her motivations, and it translated off the page easily. She is one of those characters who just resonates with you and lingers long after you've finished the book.

The romance it tentative, and sweet. Seeing Ana experience emotions for the first time and grapple with what it means was part of what made this story feel so unique. Ana is aware that she shouldn't be dreaming, or feeling what she is feeling, but her reaction to it happening felt so authentic. It made the romance feel a touch more believable for me in a lot of ways. Ana's joy, sorrow, and everything in between adds to her relationship with Owen. Their moments are subtle, but so important to Ana's journey.

The Kingdom is basically Disney World dialed up. It's bright, magical, and the place where dreams come true. We, however, quickly see that not everything is as it seems. There is a darkness, particularly what happens to Ana and her fellow 'Fantasists', that pulses under the surface. The nods to the abuse that they suffer under the hands of wealthy men may only be delicately woven into the story but it is more than enough to repulse and turn your stomach. The lavish parties, the leering looks, the crass comments, the unwanted touches.  They all serve to paint a terrible, rage inducing picture. The anger that coursed through me as I read this made me realize how well crafted this book is. I cared about Ana and the others almost from the beginning and it was quite evident as this part of the story came into sharper focus.

The sexual harassment and abuse Ana and her 'sisters' face is, obviously, quite timely. This book is a product of the #metoo movement. There is female anger here and commentary on the right to feel it. There are questions and exploration of rape culture and the effect it has on women. It isn't overt but that makes it all the more impressive how it was woven in along with a strong mystery. The Fantasists to many men are things to be used with zero thought of consequences and that feels extra relevant right now.

The murder of Owen is the central mystery to the story. It is told in flashes of different story telling techniques. You have regular prose mixed with transcripts, photos, articles, and interviews. This allows for the twists and reveals to be perfectly paced. The mystery is important to the story but it really feeds into the overall narrative of humanity and what it means to be human. The use of all these narration devices is part of what makes this story as strong as it is and it shows what a clever choices it was in the set up of the mystery. The premise rests on whether Ana could be convicted for murder if what she experienced was a technical glitch of a piece of artificial intelligence. Who would ultimately be responsible if that were the case. The idea of agency and self awareness is the heart of this story and it threads into all the other elements.

Feeling for Ana is the entire point of this story. It asks us to question what we consider human. It also asks us to consider what we would owe to a creation like Ana if we do consider her human. It is fascinating, smart, and well written. It's the type of book you'll want to discuss with your book club or friends. I highly recommend this one for those who want a little something extra with their mystery read. 

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