Hollow Kingdom by Kina Jane Buxton. Review

Hollow Kingdom by Kina Jane Buxton

Headline Review, hb, £18.99  

Reviewed by Sarah Deeming

Something strange is going on with Shit Turd the crow’s (ST for short) owner. He’s acting funny. One of his eyes has fallen out and he spends all his time tracing his finger against a wall until there is no finger left. In fact, something has happened to all the humans. They’re losing body parts, turning funny colours and not doing any of the things they used to before. The world of humans has come to an end and now the animals rule. But not every animal is cut out for this new ruthless world.

Trapped in houses all over are the former pets waiting for the day their owners will return and feed them. ST must find allies amongst those he once called enemies in order to help those trapped inside, because there are bigger predators than cats now, and all of them are hungry.

Hollow Kingdom is an inventive story, told from the point of view of ST, a foul-mouthed crow with a good grasp of the human world but limited understanding of analogies. This makes for an amusing unreliable sort of narrator. He is reporting the world as he sees it, but it is up to us to interpret the truth.

Be warned, there is a lot of bad language and sexual references throughout. If that sort of thing bothers you, then maybe this isn’t the apocalypse book for you. They are within context though, used for light relief when things get truly dark, and ST using the only language he knows, that which he learnt from people. There is a message there. Sometimes, though, the language becomes more aspirational as ST realised how sheltered he’s been cut off from the natural world and living with a human. These are refreshing passages, showing us character development. Yes, even a crow can have character development.

Interspersed in ST’s chapters are vignettes of other characters, other animals and their perception of the world now humans are gone. Some of them are sad, like the meditations of a polar bear where her future is uncertain despite the lack of humans. Others are hilarious, Genghis Cat is such a powerful voice I could have read more of his experiences of the apocalypse.

These voices made it hard for me to get on board with ST’s mission. At first, he is looking for other humans who have survived, and then he is searching for just one, a red-headed man who can open doors to let the domesticated animals out. The animals were so sad or so determined to survive without people that I almost didn’t want ST to find any.

There is a strange sense of time in the book, and I couldn’t decide whether all of it was down to ST being a bird and therefore not having the same understanding of time as us or whether Buxton deliberately confused the issue. We don’t know how long ST is stuck in his master’s house before he leaves, but it is long enough for the world to go to hell and nature to start reclaiming shopping malls and freeways. To me, it seemed very unlikely that, given the amount of time needed for that, there would be any domesticated animals still alive no matter how many toilet bowls there were for them to drink out of.

This is a different take on the zombie genre in that zombies don’t feature that heavily. As a bird, ST can spot them and pick detours for him and his earth-bound companions to follow. While the zombies do have some big moments, the threat comes from the other animals, The One Who Spits, The Weavers, The One Who Conquers.

Underpinning the story appears to be two different messages. The first is about humans’ addiction to screens which is what turned every one to zombies. Through ST we can see there is another world beyond the screens of our phones and it is savage as well as beautiful, and we’re missing it. The other is to be true to yourself. Throughout, ST is insulted for being a human’s pet and he wishes to be human, but he is at his most eloquent when he is being a bird. Yet ST has to think both like a bird and a human in order to fight the predators. The first message felt a little clumsy at times, almost interrupting on ST’s self-discovery. After all, it is his voice that hooked me in, I didn’t want that disturbed by sermons about screen usage.

As a fan of the zombie genre, I was excited to read this. I’m not sure I got what I was looking for, but the way Buxton portrays each animal and represents our world in their eyes made Hollow Kingdom an enjoyable and memorable read.