THE KINGDOM - by Jess Rothenberg

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Published: July 2019 - Macmillan's Children's Books.
Genres: Young adult / sci fi / romance / fantasy.   
Pages: 344.
Triggers/Content Advisory: Violence / sexual assault / suicide.  
Format: Paperback ARC.
Source: Thank you so much to Pan Macmillan SA for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review. I voluntarily read & reviewed this copy. All thoughts are my own.

Welcome to the Kingdom, a dazzling fantasy theme park where 'happily ever after' is not just a promise, but a rule . . . 

It's a fairytale which ends in murder as the one of the 'Fantasists' goes renegade... Ana, a half-human, half-android princess, is tasked with entertaining visitors and making wishes come true, but now she's on trial, after finding herself experiencing emotions and romantic feelings against all her programming.

It’s been a while since I’ve been as dazzled by a book as I have been by this one. It blew me away. I loved it so much more than I was expecting to, and right until the end the author’s brilliance kept me in awe. If you’re at all intrigued by the phrase “Disney, but darker, with hybrids and theme parks and robots”, get yourself a copy right now because you are going to love this novel.

Rothenberg’s writing is gorgeous. There are so many quotable sentences, and the descriptions and imagery are utterly sublime. The world is so vivid, words glimmer like jewels as the author brings the theme park and its attractions to life, and the dialogue is razor-sharp and profound. The prose is simply stunning.

The world building is a dark, glittering wonderland. A theme park idea was awesome enough, but Disney-inspired? A "Mermaid Lagoon", a "Winter Land", a "Crystal Chateau", a "Fairytale Forest, an "Artic Enclosure"? Ballrooms, castles, stadiums, safaris, ravines, lagoons, all alive with characters whose job it is to entertain and captivate the park’s visitors? It takes theme park to a whole new level! It’s like every magical location from a Disney film or a fairytale has been fleshed out into a live attraction for people to be a part of. It even feels as if we, as readers, get to be a part of it. It’s sensational!

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

The plot captivated me from the first page. There are so many secrets, lies and mysteries lurking beneath the sparkly surface of this world, and you feel those dark secrets prickling at you as you read, raising goose bumps and tempting you onwards. The novel is impossible to put down. It’s creepy, but it’s irresistible. It keeps you guessing from start to finish. A part of me wishes the book had never ended, because I was so deeply soaked in this dangerous, wondrous world and all its dark unknowns. It’s propulsive reading.

I also love the clever structure. The story alternates between the present day and Ana’s trial (which is in the form of video transcripts and interviews). Each flashback chapter ends on a cliffhanger that perfectly corresponds to the following chapter in present day, and that only adds to the level of horror and mystery. Everything is so ingeniously intertwined.

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

As for the characters, I adored them. The villains are wicked and terrifying, the secondary characters make an impression, and Ana and her sisters are phenomenal heroines. I fell in love with them and never stopped rooting for them to uncover the horrors of their situation and break free. There's a true sense of sisterhood between the Fantasists (as the girls are called) and despite wobbles in their relationships, they all stick together. That evolving, dynamic solidarity was beautiful to read.

The heroine of the novel, Ana, is lovely. She's so pure, good-hearted, and interesting, and her fierce loyalty to her sisters is incredibly moving. I especially like how protective Nia and Ana were of each other, and also how Ana and Eve’s relationship deepened and grew as they overcame the petty obstacles between them. In the end, Ana never gave up on her sisters. There are many emotional scenes between these girls that tore at my heart and brought tears to my eyes.

I wasn’t a big fan of the romance. I think the story needed it, but it could have worked so much better if Owen's character had been more strongly written. He's never as compelling as the females. He and Ana are sweet together and I liked watching how she was affected by their relationship, but Owen wasn't a particularly interesting person on his own.

Another excellent aspect of the story is its underlying themes. The author raises thought-provoking questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be a woman. She also examines how woman are treated and perceived in society; what their purpose is, what men want their purpose to be, and how women are so often subconsciously abused, objectified, and put at a disadvantage by patriarchal systems they were never even aware of. The author doesn't shy away from these issues - she digs deep into sexism and abuse and leaves you outraged at the injustices so carefully fleshed out in this particular story.

The Kingdom is a spectacular new fantasy adventure, ingeniously written but also a profound exploration of abuse, misogyny, society, and sisterhood. It's an irresistible story. And its message is startlingly relevant.  

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