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.
The book follows past and present in a scattered but easy to follow way, and we know that someone was murdered, and we follow the steps leading up to the trial as well as the trial itself. Following the questions and Ana’s disillusionment from the world in which she lives, a number of interesting themes are raised. For instance, there are unclear lines between androids and humans and how you define that humanity is called into question throughout. There are also smaller themes about animal welfare (in terms of how they are treated at the park and the need for performance) and about objectification of women and sexual harassment. Another minor theme is about commercialism and the use of beauty and race/ethnicity as a tool towards monetary gain.
What I loved: This book was quite the page turner, and I read it in one sitting. The idea is marvelous, and the writing pulls it off perfectly with a captivating mystery. The themes can spark some really interesting discussions of morality on several levels (as mentioned above), and it’s quite a thoughtful book. Ana undergoes quite a transformation throughout the book, and one of the things I enjoyed most about this was that the education was not primarily driven by the male romantic lead, but rather through her own observations and those of her sisters.
Along those lines, I was also intrigued by the other Fantasists, several of whom are well-formed as secondary characters (Nia, Eve, and Kaia in particular) and who add quite a lot to the book. The characterizations are really fantastically well done, and they all came to life on the page. The world-building was also top notch, and the Kingdom was easy to imagine based on the descriptions. I also liked that the romance was relatively light in this book and mostly took a backseat to the other themes.
Other thoughts: This book was much darker than I anticipated, and I would like to add content warnings for sexual harassment, sexual assault (alluded to), child endangerment (near murder of a 4 year old), suicide (attempted), and animal abuse.
Final verdict: With interesting and thought-provoking themes as well as well-crafted characters and detailed world-building, this book would be easy to recommend for people looking for dark fantasy/thrillers that will pull you in and keep you guessing until the end.