Fierce Kingdom

Aug 5, 2017

It’s been fifteen minutes since I read the last line of Gin PhillipsFierce Kingdom and still my heart is lodged in my throat.

It’s described as a “thrill ride” and an “exploration of motherhood.” Yet, the word “thrill” has a positive connotation and the intensity of Fierce Kingdom is not a result of pleasure. As to the latter description, I think it’s more appropriate to say it’s a reflection on motherhood: a mother’s point of view during a quiet moment in the late afternoon as she watches her son play with his super heroes in an area off the beaten track in the local zoo colliding with the same mother, but a new, instantly developing point of view when suddenly everything of importance—all that is important, the life of her son—is in jeopardy.

Lincoln is playing, making up stories and checking in periodically that his mom, Joan, is listening. She is relaxed sitting in the dirt and sand of the rather ragged, forgotten Dinosaur Discovery Pit; perfectly content.

She and Lincoln used to come here and dig for dinosaur bones, back in his former life as a three-year-old. But now, two months after his fourth birthday, he is several incarnations past his old geographical self.

There is that beautiful shifting of shadows on the gravel, and Lincoln is doing his evil villain laugh, and it strikes her that these afternoon’s with her son’s weight on her legs, the woods around them, are something like euphoric.

As events proceed, Joan does reflect on being a mother and on her son, as her son, as his own person with his own uniqueness, which is separate from herself, but also mother and child that creates a connectedness like no other.

She gives herself over to deciphering the workings of his brain: it is one of the bits of mothering that has delighted her all the more because she did not know it existed. His mind is complicated and unique, weaving worlds of its own. In his sleep sometimes he will cry out entire sentences—”Not down the stairs!”—and there are windows to his inner machinery, glimpses, but she will never really know it all, and that is the thrill. He is a whole separate being, as real as she is.

There are so many things that did not exist before him.

As they’re heading for the zoo exit, Joan hurries Lincoln as they’ve got a ways to walk and she’s cut it close too closing time. He wants to be carried, yet he’s too big for her to carry  the whole way. Like millions of parents throughout time, she suggests something fun to distract him (nope, don’t wanna), she tells him the truth (uh, okay), and then she compromises (deal).

Such a system of checks and balances—parenting—of projections and guesswork and cost-benefit ratios.

All of those elements of parenting, and more, will be utilized in the hours ahead when Joan realizes they are unable to leave the zoo just by strolling out the exit—and, in fact, are on the run.

A considerable part of parenting is pretending moods that you do not entirely feel.

I was swept into this story, glued and held tight, because many of Joan’s musings, questions, and thoughts are relatable to me as a mother. Some of her actions seem callous and yet I was with her, alongside her, in synch with wanting, needing to keep Lincoln safe at all costs, even if that cost others. As the story proceeds, Joan wonders if she can live with the decisions she’s made, while with her next breath she realizes she’d do it again (in a heartbeat). Even though that doesn’t assuage her guilt, she knows she’d choose living with the guilt versus jeopardizing her son’s life. And, then suddenly, she puts her own life in jeopardy for a teenager she’s just met.

A few chapters are told from other characters’ points of view. They arrive at random, which is jolting, but perhaps the lack of a pattern reflects the reality that the present is an unknown element, unable to be controlled. Decisions must be made that can’t be mulled over and considered, actions are taken with a desperate hope of success, or at least a hope of not ending in catastrophic failure.

She realizes she is making a low, steady shushing sound next to Lincoln’s ear. She sounds like a child pretending to be the wind. She does not stop, though, because he is being quiet, and she is not ready for him to speak. Her arms tighten around him. If she could, she would freeze them both for a solid two hours, for a day, forever, long enough that he cannot remember the sound of the voices.

The whole of Fierce Kingdom covers only several hours. I can imagine this read would be interminable for many readers; for others, it will be gripping, a realization of what every mother worries: the worst case scenario.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips (Viking, 2017). Cost: $25. Available at Vroman’s Bookstore in its main branch or Hastings Ranch, as well as Flintridge Bookstore & Cafe. For more about the author, visit



Gin Phillips (official biography):

Gin Phillips is the author of five novels. Her debut novel, The Well and the Mine, was the winner of the 2009 Barnes & Noble Discover Award. Since then her work has been sold in 29 countries. Phillips’ other books are the novel Come in and Cover Me, and The Hidden Summer and A Little Bit of Spectacular for middle graders.

Born in Montgomery, Al., Gin graduated from Birmingham-Southern College with a degree in political journalism. She worked as a magazine writer for more than a decade, living in Ireland, New York, and Washington D.C., before eventually moving back to Alabama.

She currently lives in Birmingham with her family.








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