By: Kira Jane Buxton
S.T., a domesticated crow, is a bird of simple pleasures: hanging out with his owner Big Jim, trading insults with Seattle’s wild crows (those idiots), and enjoying the finest food humankind has to offer: Cheetos ®.
Then Big Jim’s eyeball falls out of his head, and S.T. starts to feel like something isn’t quite right. His most tried-and-true remedies–from beak-delivered beer to the slobbering affection of Big Jim’s loyal but dim-witted dog, Dennis–fail to cure Big Jim’s debilitating malady. S.T. is left with no choice but to abandon his old life and venture out into a wild and frightening new world with his trusty steed Dennis, where he discovers that the neighbors are devouring each other, and the local wildlife is abuzz with rumors of dangerous new predators roaming Seattle. Humanity’s extinction has seemingly arrived, and the only one determined to save it is a foul-mouthed crow whose knowledge of the world around him comes from his TV-watching education.
What can I say but that I started out not liking this book, then it got better, and this whole review is probably going to seem confused.
This story is satirical but with a different flavor of satire than I’ve experienced before. Most satire like that of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams is light-hearted even in the face of disastrous situations. Hollow Kingdom is a horror novel with graphic violence, character death, and deep emotion that in no way constitute “humor” in my opinion. The story begins more light-hearted than it ends which is also something I hadn’t experienced with a satirical work as those I’ve read before hold the same tone throughout.
The commentary lacked subtlety which isn’t a requirement for satire but, to me, it is what makes for a strong one. You couldn’t draw your own conclusions about the messages in this story because S.T. would just tell you what it all meant. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wasn’t expecting the narrative to take me where it did or for it to be so dark. Some parts were genuinely funny, but by the end, the story was heartbreaking and somber. I didn’t find it to be comical or playful even when the author was trying to be because there were just too many sad things happening at once. It’s hard to break the tension when a bunch of animals are getting murdered.
To give you a feel for the author’s sense of humor, S.T. is short for Shit Turd (the main character’s full name), and his term for humans is “MoFos.” While initially, I found the use of MoFo funny, it grated on my nerves in the early chapters when it seemed like he was using that term in every sentence. Once the frequency toned down in the later chapters, it became a natural part of the story, and my brain stopped focusing on it. So that was a plus.
One of the main story threads is how S.T. was raised by a human, so he is considered a “hybrid” by other crows. He’s trying to find his place in society and his crow community after he left his caretaker, Big Jim. The parallels between S.T. as a hybrid crow compared to a human from a mixed background returning to their ethnic heritage were a little too on the nose. It was clever but I saw right through it immediately.
I will give this book credit for providing a more unique apocalyptic/zombie experience than anything I’ve ever seen before. Rather than explaining the changed world from the perspective of the surviving humans, the world is instead explained through animals and how they view the world once humans are gone. S.T. also goes into depth about Nature returning the world to an order that humans had disrupted; another not-so-subtle comment on environmentalism but the author wasn’t wrong. I found S.T. initial innocence about the zombification of Big Jim to be kind of charming. He thought he could cure Big Jim of his change with over-the-counter prescriptions and random food like it was any other kind of illness. After that is when the light-hearted nature of the story takes a hard left turn.
Hollow Kingdom demonstrated that it could never be a 5-star read for me when it began brutally and depressingly killing off animals (especially domestic dogs) which my soul cannot handle with any sense of calm. If you are an animal lover like me, I would ask that you steer clear of this book. There are scenes where domestic dogs are so sad over the death of their humans that they just lay down and die from depression, other dogs get killed rabid domestics, and many more are killed by the monsters that humans are turned into. Some just starve to death. But many, many die. It’s a hard story to get through and I absolutely did cry from the sheer graphic descriptions and painful losses. S.T. describes depression as The Black Tide and I felt that really hard. Sometimes I would have to stop reading because I just felt like curling into a ball.
I was prepared to give this story a much lower rating because of all the animal death, but there honestly were a lot of good parts and good messages. Enough that I can’t dislike the story even when I wanted to throw the book across the room. It was meant to be upsetting and horrifying and the author succeeded in her goal. There are a lot of passages about hope during grief and healing through community that I found moving and powerful. In those regards, Buxton shows a lot of wisdom and a lot of heart.
The way animals communicate is also really fascinating as it’s kind of like the radio. Air and land animals use Aura, sea animals use Echo, and trees and subterranean creatures use Web. Each is tuned into their own frequency which is how they know what is going on with the world around them. It’s how animals communicate danger to one another and send messages over large distances.
Honestly, one of the things I found so shocking about Hollow Kingdom was that it might have been too vulgar even for me, and I curse like a sailor! At its core, the story is an impassioned plea for humanity to open our eyes to the plight of nature and the world we are so good at destroying. S.T. always tries to think of humans in a good light but the truth of the world we left behind is one of ruin and heartache. But there is hope that we might yet make the world a better place, and if we don’t, then whatever comes after us will.
Overall rating: 4