I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley.
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 downloaded this on a whim after an email from NetGalley highlighted it. Android princesses! Twisted Disney-land-esque kingdom which clearly hides something much more sinister! Murder! Pink sparkly castle on the cover! I was so on board with this. It felt like it would be The Selection crossed with The Diabolic, and I was so here for that.
Once I got into the book, I was a little… underwhelmed. It did have android princesses. It had a twisted Disney-world-esque kingdom with sinister undertones and a main character who was being controlled so much more than she realised. And actually it had lots of great visuals and flashes of excellence in understanding diversity and what it means to be human. There is a point where the main character, Ana, muses on how your appearance relates to your identity. The seven Fantasists, android princesses who live in the Kingdom, are designed to appeal to a range of fans, covering all beauty ideals, but their appearances don’t carry the weight of a life lived as a POC. There’s some great background and incidental scenes of people’s reactions to Ana, and their disgust at the thought of her. There’s also a big thread running through the book of whether Ana is capable of murder, of shrugging off her programming to the extent that she starts to feel, and whether hybrids – natural-technological creations – are capable of evolution. All of this stuff was great.
Sadly, however, it was obscured by a lacklustre plotline with a main character who was introspective but lacked any insight, a love interest who was bewilderingly bland, and a central conflict that never really played out in any sort of satisfying payoff.
Ana is on trial for murder – the book’s narrative actually doesn’t tell us who’s been murdered for a good chunk of the action, but the blurb kind of throws away this careful plotting by telling us immediately that it’s Owen – and the tale of how this happened is told through court testimony, a post-trial interrogation with Ana’s creator, and largely through flashbacks from Ana’s point of view. It was an interesting structure, which I don’t think actually worked all that well because of how I was reading it. I think because I was reading an eARC, the formatting wasn’t as crisp as it will be in the finished product, and the delineation will be clearer in a fully typeset version. Although it wasn’t the greatest experience for me, I fully expect it to be great once the finished book is available.
The marketing material for this book pegs it as being Westworld-esque. Not having seen Westworld, I don’t know what that means, so it was totally lost on me. Perhaps I need to become more culturally aware…
In any case. This was a good book, with flashes of brilliance, but hidden under a rather dull and clunky at times storyline that detracted from the twisted brilliance at the heart of the story and the really interesting theoretical perspectives that could have been given more time to shine.