Kira Jane Buxton, wherever you are in the world, my hat’s off to you for penning the brilliant novel, “Hollow Kingdom.” If I were still a high school English teacher, I would insist that this novel be studied in class for its timeless themes and masterful use of the English language. How can something that contains zombies be so poignant, lyrical, funny and tragic all at the same time? Three-quarters of the way through I wanted to read it again and within the last ten pages I determined that I had to buy my own copy to read whenever I wanted a good chuckle or cry.
Yes, it has zombies, which was what prompted me to place a request for the book in the first place. I thought a little dark, mindless reading would be a good way to pass a wet summer day. Initially I thought the zombie aspect was merely a MacGuffin, a device to incite the plot, but then disintegrate. However, despite their generally low-key presence, the zombies pop up to affect the plot again and again. Indeed, one of the themes is the collapse of the human race.
The narrator also piqued my interest: a foul-mouthed, domesticated crow who would rather be human. Again, what starts out as one thing in the novel, morphs into something entirely different. The crow, S.T. (whose full name is not printable in polite newspapers) is a self-centered, cowardly little beast whose character improves vastly under the pressure of circumstances. His trusty steed, a blood-hound named Dennis, who alone of all the anthropomorphized animals in the book doesn’t communicate, tugged at my heart-strings so much that by the end that I had to put the book down and cuddle my squirming cockapoo for a full five minutes.
The plot starts fairly slowly, with enough oddities to ensure continued reading, but then, like an enormously gorgeous butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, the story becomes epic. S.T. and Dennis must leave home, because their human, Big Jim, is now a zombie and wants to eat them. S.T. sets out to find surviving humans who can provide a cure for Big Jim and rescue all of the domestic animals trapped inside houses. Over and over events lead me to expect the worst possible outcome as the characters on their quest to rescue humanity and domestics become more and more dear, until the inevitable does occur and I dissolved into tears. By a book narrated by a crow? A book about zombies? Yes and yes. The ante-hero becomes a hero and one must mourn the loss of mankind and cheer for the bravery, love, and community that emerges.
Buxton’s use of language is exquisite, like a feast of exotic bonbons that doesn’t leave you bloated upon consumption. Often I came across examples that I wanted to share, but then decided against it, as each nugget is placed in such a way that discovery of the clever, witty, or beautiful phrase is part of the delight: you must discover them for yourself. And funny! You’ve read reviews where the reviewer writes of laughing and crying, and you felt that they were overstating the point? Me too, but this book made me guffaw and weep copious tears (interrupted by several guilt-induced games of fetch with the aforementioned cockapoo). Also notable is Buxton’s masterful use of collective nouns. Seriously.
Whether you read “Hollow Kingdom” for the zombies, a glimpse into the hearts and minds of animals, or the monumental themes, please just read it. I don’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a novel so thoroughly.