If I start out by telling you that Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton, is the story of the zombie apocalypse, as narrated (mostly) by a domesticated crow named S. T.,you’re probably thinking it’s going to be told with a certain amount of attitude, that there will be a lot of action in it, and that it (or at least parts of it) will be funny in a Sean of the Dead kind of way. You’d be correct. What would surprise you is how poignant and powerful the book is. At least, that certainly surprised me. It’s a terrific book, moving and beautiful in places while also being dark and funny and obscene in others.
Let’s start out with S.T.’s language. He’s the main narrator, and I won’t even tell you what S.T. stands for (don’t worry, he tells you right away); suffice it to say it’s two four letter words relating to his color and general shape. He has a foul mouth, there’s no question about it. He comes by it naturally, of course. We don’t actually see much of the man who taught him to speak, but what we find out about Big Jim makes it clear he wasn’t the most refined of people, and the language he used is the language S. T. uses. If you’re a person who’s offended by multiple f-bombs, you probably won’t be able to get through this book.
Which would be a shame, because you’d be missing something really special.
S.T. is a wonderful character. Raised by the crude and somewhat boorish Big Jim, he refers to human beings as “mofos” (think of Samuel L. Jackson whenever he uses that term), but affectionately. At the outset of the book, and for quite a while, he thinks of himself as something other than a crow, maybe part human, maybe a human in the shape of a crow. He sneers at the rest of the crows in his neighborhood, and has endless admiration for the mofos, both the ones he’s actually met and lived with and near and the ones he’s heard about and seen on television. If it weren’t for the whole humans turning into zombies thing, he would probably spend his whole life living with Big Jim and Dennis, Big Jim’s hound dog, ignoring the rest of the world.
Of course, something happens, and people start changing in terrible ways. I keep using the word “zombie,” but that’s not what S.T. thinks, and it’s not entirely accurate. Humans devolve into mindless creatures, eating anything that they find (including, horribly, their own pets in some cases), chasing after cell phones and ipads whenever they see them. Domestics like S.T. and Dennis have to find ways to survive without humans as all the human infrastructure is overwhelmed by a resurgent nature, including all the creatures that ordinarily live in human territories (crows, other birds, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, etc) and the inhabitants of the Seattle Zoo, now freed and making themselves at home.
The book is surprisingly poignant, partly because of some of the things that happen along the line (warning: some characters we care about are killed), but mostly, I think, because our guide through the bulk of the story is S.T. We first see him in sarcastic and snarky mode, but very soon we discover the depth of his heart, his eagerness to find a cure for Big Jim (a funny and poignant scene in itself), his recognition that Dennis, the hound, is suffering from depression and his efforts to make Dennis happy again. His relationship with Dennis, in particular, changes over the course of the book from his referring to the dog as having “weapon grade incompetence” to his referring to him as “my Dennis,” and trying to protect him from the outside world, seeing him as a part of S.T.’s “murder” (as crow groups are called).
Unlike the wild animals, S.T. misses us mofos. He remembers his relationship with Big Jim, and wishes he could get that back. He thinks with regret of all the wonderful things we mofos invented and did, which the animals now taking over the world will not be able to recreate. He sees the writings the last healthy humans wrote, saying “We did this to ourselves,” and “we deserve this,” and he doesn’t agree with them, though most of the other animals do. S.T. wants to save what we did best, difficult as that might turn out to be.
Over the course of the book, S.T. changes. He’s still a dual-natured creature, part crow and part domesticated animal. There’s always going to be a part of him that’s shaped by Big Jim, by his experiences with humans, but he comes to accept his crow side, and to be accepted by the wild crows for the first time.
There’s plenty of action, plenty of danger, to keep you turning the pages, but ultimately it’s the animals, and especially S. T. (who’s not the only narrator, but the main one; the others, including especially the Mother Tree, add a lot to the book’s depth) who keep you caring, keep you feeling. We don’t need to know how the plague started, but we find out anyway (and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise and the power of it), and as we watch it ravage the human world, and what happens to human beings who survive (spoiler: it’s not good), you might think this is a downer of a book, too sad to read in dark times.
Ultimately, though, it’s not a downer. There’s hope in the book, hope for the future of the world, even if it’s a world that doesn’t include human beings. I confess I’m not sure about the end; it’s a satisfying end, but it’s not the end I thought we were leading up to, and I’m still not entirely sure it was the right way to end the book.
Set aside some time, because this is a book that sucks you right in and holds you until you’re finished, and drop in to Hollow Kingdom. You’ll ultimately be glad you did.