Jess Rothenberg’s YA, sci-fi, fantasy The Kingdom tackles the pressing philosophical question, “What does it mean to be human”, in a futuristic Disneyland-esque theme park with android princesses, bio-engineered animals, and a dolphin show with a singing mermaid. Oh, and did I mention that there is a murder trial?
The story follows Ana, an android princess called a Fantasist who works for The Kingdom, a futuristic theme park utopia. Her entire life’s purpose is fulfilling the wishes and desires of the park’s guests, keeping within the bounds of her internal programming. Ana and her six sisters are the mascots of the park; they are the reason crowds come to The Kingdom, a place where dreams become reality.
When Ana meets Owen, a park maintenance worker who deeply cares for the bioengineered animals, she experiences emotions that go against her programming and the safety of her firewalls. Ana begins to fall in love. Yet, things quickly spiral out of control, and Ana finds herself accused of being a killer—Owen’s killer— and a complex tale of mystery, romance, deception, and fantasy unfolds.
Overall, I adore this novel. I devoured this story in 4 hours (Do I have a life?). Now, what makes The Kingdom compelling is its setting, pacing, and characters.
Rothenberg does not hold back with her descriptions of this fantastical, sci-fi Disneyland, and capitalizes on using all the senses. All the different themed lands, like the Arctic, Ocean, and Savannah, have their own scents and temperatures (like riding a jeep through the Savannah, with the scent of sun warmed grass in the air or shivering in the arctic cold while watching a polar bear in a giant ice castle). Rothenberg also does a phenomenal job of juxtaposing the utopian, magical descriptions of the theme park with the shady, sterile nature of the park’s employee only areas.
As for the pacing, The Kingdom truly shines as the YA sci-fi mystery that it is. The novel boasts a unique format in which the main narrative has already happened, and the reader is dumped right into the middle of Ana’s murder trial. All of the main story is primarily communicated through Ana’s memories of the events that lead to Owen’s murder. The only time her memories are interrupted is when the murder trial presents new information like an audio transcript, email conversation, or even sometimes “camera footage”. I personally loved this novel’s format. It caused me to keep turning the pages because I wanted to see how all of the pieces fit together.
For the characters, Rothenberg does an excellent job at creating an android that readers can empathize with and understand. Ana’s love and desire for her fellow android sisters to be safe and cared for feels tangible and her obsession with the world “beyond the green light” feels incredibly human (Hello The Great Gatsby imagery, is that you?). Still, it is also eerie when stressful situations overload Ana’s emotional programming, and she starts chirping hollow sentiments like plastic toy doll. Rothenberg kept me guessing Ana’ motives and her innocence in the murder; it was such a fun ride. However with the other characters, they seem a little less fleshed out. Owen definitely could use more development. With what little we get to know about him, I am left wanting more. His backstory is incredibly compelling with trauma and mixed motives (which I can’t say because it will ruin some of the mystery’s suspense). His romance with Ana is kept very light as well. It’s there, but do not expect tons of heart-melting moments. Lastly, Ana’s sisters are also neglected quite a bit. Nia, Eve, and Kaia all have moments of focused character development, but Zara, Zel, Yumi, and Nadia only have a few descriptions and pieces of dialogue thrown their way. Either the novel should have been lengthened to accommodate all these characters or a few of the sisters should have been cut.
Now, do not think that this novel is all rainbows and butterflies. This novel contains dark and adult themes and situations. Implied sexual assault, violence, and animal abuse are present, and are jarring against the magical, happy setting (which I believe is Rothenberg’s intention).
Rothenberg is not afraid to show the dark underbelly of humanity. She recognizes that to be human is to be able to choose. To choose love or hate. To choose life or death. To choose goodness or evil. Remove choice from the equation, and what are you left with? Human beings are messy and destructive. But humans beings can also be vessels for good, for fighting for justice, for loving others, and for filling the world with beauty.
Thus, by answering one question about humanity, The Kingdom asks us another— What will you choose?