Source: Copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review!
Welcome to the Kingdom… where ‘Happily Ever After’ isn’t just a promise, but a rule.
Glimmering like a jewel behind its gateway, The Kingdom™ is an immersive fantasy theme park where guests soar on virtual dragons, castles loom like giants, and bioengineered species―formerly extinct―roam free.
Ana is one of seven Fantasists, beautiful “princesses” engineered to make dreams come true. When she meets park employee Owen, Ana begins to experience emotions beyond her programming including, for the first time… love.
But the fairytale becomes a nightmare when Ana is accused of murdering Owen, igniting the trial of the century. Through courtroom testimony, interviews, and Ana’s memories of Owen, emerges a tale of love, lies, and cruelty―and what it truly means to be human.
I was incredibly intrigued by the way this book was pitched, and I was very excited to read it if not a little bit wary because the last kind of fantasy, murder mystery book that I read was Four Dead Queens and it was more than a little bit disappointing, it has to be said. While I did enjoy this, and it was easy to breeze through, it's not a book that I'd be likely to read again, and it didn't wow me enough for me to give it more than three stars.
I was immediately drawn in by the way we jumped from a dead body that was described like a twisted version of Snow White, to a post trial interview set after the whole fiasco that screamed of shadiness. The world was intriguing, it's set in the future and our main setting is a big amusement park. It's basically Disney, but with animal hybrids, mermaids and so on. It's certainly imaginative, and I was so intrigued by it with the way nature and technology seamlessly merged.
The storytelling was nicely done, it's not solely narrative, the narrative chapters are mixed up with interviews, court transcripts, court documents, CCTV footage, scripts for TV spots and so on that build up the trial and the case, and add a sense of anticipation as you speed towards finding out what really happened and if Ana really did do it or not. The narrative fills in the world building, introduces us to the characters and how everything works and slowly starts to peel back the happy, shiny veneer of the place and reveal the darkness underneath. I loved how the darkness, and sense of things not being entirely right crept in and built up along with the case. The narrative sections also give us some clues, I liked how we'd meet a character in a trial transcript and have one perception of them and then meet them in the narrative and have that perception change, it was nicely done. The narrative builds up a nice sense of foreboding, mentioning things like spots where the wi-fi signal doesn't work and disables their livestream capabilities and so on. I just enjoyed how we initially were shown the sparkling, magical side but then the darkness crept in slowly, growing and getting darker and darker the more you read.
It was pretty easy to get hooked in thanks to all of that, the darkness being revealed piqued my interest, I liked Ana's relationship with her sisters, Nia was intriguing because you wanted to know what the problem with her was, you start to build up a picture of what happened, or what might have happened...and there's the question of whether or not Ana actually did it. There are clues in favour of her doing it and in favour of things being slightly off with the whole situation. The characters, and their lies and the park and it's shady dealings are all gradually exposed, and it really is like a messed up version of Disneyland. I found the park's morality and morality behind the Fantasists an interesting debate in the book too. I was reading initially like 'wow that's so cool, they're bringing back extinct animals' and so on but the more I read the more I was like 'okay...it's cool, but it's not really okay, is it?'.
As for Ana herself, she does make for an interesting narrative as she's half human and half android, she can't always express things or put names or words to what she wants to think or say. She's very trusting and naive, which isn't surprising when you consider the fact that she's lived in this sheltered environment and watching her become more aware of the dark side of the park and have that naivety taken away was another thing that I found interesting about her as a character. But while I did empathise with her more than once throughout the book, I also didn't fully connect with her. She ends up constantly following Owen around, and the romance was a little bit too insta-love for my tastes so I couldn't quite enjoy it. I didn't really see how, or why it was necessary, but more importantly Owen wasn't that deep of a character for me. We didn't get much on his background and motivations and I know there needed to be an air of mystery about him but he didn't feel like a fully formed character as I was reading. The same can be said for some of the other Fantasists to be honest, Eve suddenly started to become more important from nowhere but I wasn't all that attached to her and we barely saw the others to the extent that I sometimes forgot who they were.
The conclusion to the book was partially satisfying, we find out what happened that night, who really killed Owen and what went down which was great. I loved how some things were resolved, and some questions were answered so that things clicked in to place. However, considering how much of the book was spent building up to it, I do feel like it was a little bit rushed. My main issue with this is the fact that while the murder aspect is all wrapped up, the author decided to open up a whole other can of worms right at the end, and things were left very open ended with no sign of a sequel in sight. I think it would have been a lot more chilling if things had gone differently to the way that they did if there's not going to be a sequel. If there's no sequel...it seems a bit disappointing to set up for one and then not follow through.
Overall, while I did initially enjoy this and I was hooked by some questions the book raised, and the murder mystery aspect, I felt I couldn't really connect to Ana enough, I felt like some characters weren't fully formed and developed, and I can rarely get behind insta-love. I did enjoy this book but there was something missing from this for me to give it a higher rating and like I said, I doubt I'd re-read it.