When browsing for books to take on holiday with me this year, I couldn’t help but notice The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg. Its striking (UK) cover and somewhat sinister tagline—”Where happily ever after is not just a promise, but a rule”—drew me in to discover a blurb that promised a Disney-style Magic Kingdom with a cracked veneer. Androids gone wrong is not a new theme and neither is death in paradise, but the dark confection teased on the back of the book was too tasty to ignore.
Here are 5 reasons to read The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg.
1. The Setting.
There’s something beguiling about a novel that’s set inside the Magic Kingdom. It’s not called that, but to all intents and purposes, that’s what “The Kingdom” is. The novel is set far into the future and from the little snippets of context we get, the outside world has gone pretty bad. Yet inside The Kingdom things are kept as perfect as possible. Inevitably, perfection comes at a price and there is a bubbling dark undercurrent to the novel, notwithstanding the fact that its central character is on trial for murder.
2. The Robots.
Perfect robot princesses rule The Kingdom, each with their own personalities, skills, and idiosyncrasies. It’s impossible not to conflate them with Disney princesses, which is of course exactly what we’re meant to do. If Disney’s celluloid princess climbed out of the screen, they would act something like the princesses in The Kingdom.
Beyond that, there are a host of animals that have been cybernetically reborn. Extinct creatures given (artificial) life once more. The robots are at the heart of this novel, but not all is right with them. Exactly what’s wrong is one of the story’s central mysteries.
3. Unreliable Narrators.
The Kingdom is made up of snippets of testimony, interviews, medical reports, and courtroom cross-examinations. Who can we trust? A body has been found. A.I. Princess Ana is the main suspect, only she cannot lie. Or can she? Has she evolved?
What are the owners of the company hiding? What is their main goal? What secrets did Ana discover and are they trying to silence her?
This book is filled with conflicting accounts and accusations, most often narrated by a young woman who is coming of age. It’s startlingly well put together, most notably in its…
4. …Depiction of A.I.
The stars of the novel are the A.I. Princesses. Ana is a wonderfully complex character, who is learning that the world is not how she imagined it. There are a number of different iterations of princess, allegedly each more advanced than the last. But definitions of “advanced” are fluid.
Ana sits at the cusp of sentience, and we the reader try to decipher whether she truly is, or whether almost perfect recall and countless learned responses, backed up by a huge amount of processing power, just make her seem that way.
As Ana probes just exactly what the board of The Kingdom is making their princesses do, the question of sentience and manipulation become all the more important. The rights of artificial intelligence is a thorny subject, and Jess Rothenberg uses her novel to ask some difficult questions.
5. The Story.
The confection of The Kingdom is pretty special. The “frothy kingdom of magic with a dark center” is perfectly depicted, and the novel’s central mystery is worthy of Agatha Christie. There are many threads and clues laced throughout the novel and plenty of red herrings too. It’s impossible not to get hooked by the story as it hurtles to its conclusion.
The novel also examines difficult subjects like coercion and the manipulation of the vulnerable. Ana and her sisters are, in essence, teenage girls growing into women. Their treatment at the hands of the owners of The Kingdom is a subtle examination of oppression and the curtailing of rights and expression. It’s artfully done and adds an extra dimension to an already intriguing plot.
The Kingdom is a terrific mystery novel with an intriguing setting. A must-read for those who think the house of mouse might be too good to be true. A subtle coming of age novel, threaded with difficult questions about the rights of AIs, The Kingdom is speculative fiction of the highest order.
If you enjoyed this review do check out my other 5 Reasons to Read posts.