fierceJoan and her four-year-old son Lincoln are enjoying a late afternoon in the zoo when Gin Phillip’s novel Fierce Kingdom begins. It’s almost five o’clock and they are in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit playing with Lincoln’s menagerie of action figure heroes and villains.

She and Lincoln come here sometimes after she picks him up from school – they alternate between the zoo and the library and the parks and the science museum – and she steers him to the woods when she can. Here there are crickets, or something that sounds like crickets, and birds calling and leaves rustling but no human sounds except for Lincoln calling out his dialogue.

With only a few moments left before the zoo closes, Joan and Lincoln make their way to the exit. Joan has a moment of prescience when she imagines “camping in the zoo overnight, maybe even intentionally hiding back there, going to visit the animals in the pitch-black of midnight.” They are almost at the exit when Joan notices the bodies (at first she thinks they are toppled over scarecrows, but no…) and the man in dark clothes, carrying a rifle. Joan grabs Lincoln and they run. For the next three hours the pair are trapped in the zoo with armed men intent on killing them – and anyone else they find.

The scariest thing about Fierce Kingdom is probably that in the current climate it’s not such a far-fetched premise that innocent people are gunned down in what is supposed to be a safe place. I live in Canada and we don’t have the same love affair with our firearms as Americans do, but even so, it’s hard not to be paranoid about being  at the wrong place at the wrong time. Joan might have taken Lincoln to any one of their regular spots – but today they are at the zoo.

Joan’s number one priority is to get them to safety and for a big chunk of the novel they hide out in an old porcupine enclosure “deep in the twists and turns of the primate house. It does not look fit for humans, and that is what strikes her as perfect about it.”  Everything Joan does, every decision she makes, is about protecting Lincoln, and her ingenuity and bravery will likely strike a chord with anyone who has kids. Well, with anyone, really, who has a desire to live.

Phillips keeps the focus  – for the most part – on Joan and Lincoln, but she does introduce a handful of other characters (Kailynne, a teenager who works in a concession stand; Margaret Powell, an older school teacher; Robby Montgomery, a young man with a connection to the shooters), which keeps the narrative from being too insular.

As Joan works to keep Lincoln safe, she ponders the peculiarities of motherhood…the myriad of ways that harm might come to our children. As any parent knows, you can’t think about that stuff or you’ll go crazy; you’d never let your children leave the house.

Fierce Kingdom  is a book about what it means to be a parent wrapped up in a page-turning thriller.