The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg
Macmillan pb, £7.99
Reviewed by Lucy Powell
Set in a near-future dystopia, where A.I technology has advanced to scarily lifelike beings and the world has supposedly fallen foul of its own greed and climate change, there exists The Kingdom and the Fantasists who live within it. If Disney-land were crossed with a zoo of previously extinct creatures, and expanded by capitalist greed, high on an inhaled rainbow-arrayed cocktail of sugar and drugs, this setting would be it. Half-human, half-android these perfect Fantasist models live to serve, entertaining visitors and making their every wish come true as “real” life princesses. “The Kingdom” is a place that sells dreams, but it is the nightmarish, tantalisingly drip-fed story of a murder trial and investigation that sits as the true heart of the narrative, and one that Rothenberg tells with deft and suspenseful hand.
It is here we are introduced to the main character, Ana, a Fantasist of The Kingdom, on trial for the supposed murder of a park employee. If the story sometimes struggles with its complex world building, trying to cram together all too much in too few pages, and the story line itself follows a fairly cut-and-dried narrative that many would be familiar with – Could an android plot a murder? Could they feel and think like a human? – much can be overlooked for the way it is told. Ana’s story – a collection of flashback prose, court hearings, emails, and transcripts – functions as the perfect way to delve into a setting where nothing is quite as it seems, allowing us to draw our own conclusions and for a more sinister truth beneath the neatly polished exterior to be revealed.
Whilst in places Rothenberg is fairly heavy-handed in hinting at a darker side beneath the Kingdom, and plays strongly into various fairytale tropes (the “evil stepmother” or the “princess locked in the tower”), with a romantic subplot that offers some surprising twists, the story contains a thrilling level of intrigue and suspense that thrums along at pace as we follow Ana’s journey from park Fantasist to murder suspect and beyond.
Indeed, there is much to be admired about this novel. Ana’s love for her sisters (other Fantasist models) is a genuine relationship that will tug at your heartstrings as each of them shape Ana’s perspective on her world. The depiction of a society propelled by technology and money is perhaps, in some small part, scarily accurate to today’s modern times. But it is more than that. This novel is an exploration of agency; a discussion of what it means to be human and real in an overly saccharine, candy-coated world that hides the rot of exploitation and sexual harassment beneath. Overall, The Kingdom is a YA work that, whilst predictable in some places, is still well worth a read. Its pages are packed with pathos, such that you find yourself both elated, confused in the closing few pages that seem too-good-to-be-true. What was real? What was fake? And in the end, wasn’t that puzzle precisely the point?