Crowing About “Hollow Kingdom”

I’m not wishing for the end of the world any more than I long for a murder to happen but I do love reading about both of them.  So many interesting things happen in novels about the apocalypse.  Remember R.E.M‘s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”?  It’s a checklist of perfectly terrifying elements that make a captivating story – “Birds and snakes and an aeroplane”, “Governments for hire” and the “Furies breathing down. your neck” – all the best parts of great Apocalyptic fiction.  I don’t want the end of the world to happen but when the writing is so good well, I do feel fine.  Thank you, Michael Stipe.

So many books featuring a possible apocalypse stand out when I think of my ‘best ever’ books, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (which I first read way back in high school).  We get to meet the characters in these books when they are at their weakest, when everything is stripped away, so we really get to know them.  I still remember conversations between Stu and Franny in Stephen King’s book more vividly than I do the actual content of any class I took in high school.  It’s also fascinating to see how authors like Emily St. John MandelEdan Lepucki and Neal Stephenson choose to end our world – what exactly are the  catastrophic mistakes that they see our society making that takes us to destruction?  How do they imagine our society will rebuild?  These are the nitty gritty details that I love about this type of book.  If an advance review mentions genetic engineering gone wrong, pandemics-getting-out-of-hand, any instance where the CDC makes a mistake and tries to cover it up then I place my hold right away.  At least they will be an entertaining read and the really beautiful ones give me a chance to ponder what we value in our civilization – what would we miss if it all starts to fall apart?

I knew that I would read this debut novel about the apocalypse seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow (these were the keywords thrown around for the last few months when Hollow Kingdom was being chatted about online) but I didn’t know if it would just be a quirky read or one that rises above ‘book about a crow’.  I also wondered who I might share it with. How many other readers would like to read a book written from the perspective of a crow? From the first chapter I knew that it was a book for everyone.  Everyone!

The story begins with S.T., his human friend Big Jim, and their dog, Dennis, enjoying a fine day outside their home near Seattle. Looking back S.T. realizes that there might have been other indications that Big Jim’s health was declining but when one of Big Jim’s eyeballs falls out and rolls across the lawn he knows that things are starting to get serious. S.T. is a clever bird. Crows are, of course. He thoughtfully scoops it up and puts it into one of the cookie jars in the kitchen in case it can be used by Jim later and then spends the next few days trying to cure Jim of this terrifying illness. He tries everything – brings him the keys to his truck, tries feeding him Cheetos, carries him their favourite photographs from the fridge door, brings some medication from the local Walgreens – but nothing works.   With Dennis by his side (he attaches Dennis’s collar to a leash and leads him away from their home) they go on a mission to see if there are any uninfected humans who can help Big Jim.

It’s horrifying like all good infection-turns-humans-into-zombies novels but it’s wonderfully different because it’s all told through the language of animals and how they see us.  Author Kira Jane Buxton must have enjoyed books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down when she was a kid because she has the natural world built to perfection.  If the violence level weren’t so high I would be tempted to share this book with junior readers because there was so much to love and her passion for animals is evident throughout.

S.T. is the main voice but he is joined by Dennis and they meet other crows and dogs throughout their adventure.  We see some of the adventure from the perspective of moles, a poodle, a seagull, an armadillo, a polar bear and an octopus and it is all bewitching.   Their travels take them across the state, through a university campus, into abandoned neighbourhoods, a large zoo, an aquarium, forests and to the beach and it leads to a wide variety of discoveries about humans.  Some work out well for our team of crow and dog and some really do not.

I’m trying not to spoil the plot of the story (or the ending) but with many of the remaining humans preoccupied with their zombie thoughts this leaves an opportunity for the natural world to take over and it is all beautifully described by Buxton.  Seeing the destruction of the human world through S.T.’s opinionated eyes is the very best view. He was perfectly content being a crow who felt like he was almost human.  He has more enemies than friends among animal kind so the challenges that he and Dennis face together are doubly hard.  It becomes an opportunity for the reader to fall hard for both of them; especially as the author describes them as “a rejected crow with an identity crisis partnering a bloodhound with the IQ of boiled pudding.”

There are some moments in this book that were a little scary to read and had to be returned to – if I could have read them with my eyes partially covered like you watch a horror film, I might have done so.  I read this book quickly because I almost couldn’t believe how clever it was, how she was able to make her crow’s voice seem authentic, and yet I didn’t want to finish it because the time spent with S.T. and Dennis seems far too short.  It’s the classic problem with a book that you love – reading it fast because it is perfection but just not wanting it to end.

Yes, Hollow Kingdom can also be described as a zombie novel, and it is narrated by a Cheetos-eating crow with a name that is so profane I can only share the initials in this blog post, but there were moments in this book that moved me to tears and caused me to want to write down quotations from Buxton’s beautiful text.  I could needlepoint them on a pillow with a cute little crow and dog image maybe?  The author might be trying to send us a message about the environment or the dangers of relying on technology.  She might be saying all or none of this and wants to remind us of the importance of animal welfare.  It’s an unforgettable book about the end of world as we know it and you really should read it – Cheetos optional.

— Penny M.