Plague, virus, and zombie apocalypse narratives tend to share a few common threads: Often, humanity brings such terrors upon itself; usually, survivors or those with immunity come together in ragtag groups and attempt to find a cure and/or fight their way through to where the other healthy people are; and, almost always, humanity survives — perhaps in drastically reduced numbers, sans modern technology — and must learn to rebuild itself anew. The central metaphor in these narratives tends to be that humanity is really quite an awful, violent species that wars with itself constantly, and that our boundless curiosity and hubris — whether that involves scientific research gone awry or meddling with forces beyond our ken — ultimately lead to our own near-complete destruction.
This metaphor is definitely present in Kira Jane Buxton's debut novel, Hollow Kingdom, but luckily for anyone drawn to its gorgeous cover (it's an eye-catcher, a bright, near-neon green with a black and purple crow staring intensely from behind the white font), Buxton takes a joyfully original approach to apocalyptic fiction. See, instead of us humans being the focal point in the story of our own extinction, it's the plethora of life that we leave behind that takes center stage.
The novel is largely narrated by a domesticated crow named S.T. — short for something unprintable — who has spent his life with a beer-drinking, junk-food-eating, sports-loving, breast-obsessed man named Big Jim, who raised S.T. from a hatchling. A dopey, lazy dog named Dennis rounds out their little Seattle-based family. When Big Jim's eye unexpectedly falls out of his head, S.T. knows something is very wrong, but it takes him a good long while before he gives up on his beloved MoFo — S.T.'s term for humans, learned at Big Jim's bosom — and leaves home, accompanied by Dennis.
Soon enough, it becomes clear that humanity has been seized by something awful. The MoFos wander around aimlessly, their heads bobbing, their fingers swiping at objects without screens, their flesh rotting off them indiscriminately (honestly, don't read this book while you're eating if you're squeamish. Buxton is extremely talented at writing the more horrifying descriptions of the MoFos' physical condition). They don't seem very intent on eating or drinking, they've lost their language, and they become incredibly violent towards living creatures if disturbed — in fact, it's Big Jim's attempt to take a bite out of S.T. that sends the poor crow off to discover what's going on.
S.T. is a brilliant narrator, partially because he has reverence for human things like Cheetos and baked goods and football fandom, but also because he has only half a grasp on what certain human things mean. The book is laced with little jokes referring to pop culture and human idiosyncrasies and narratives, such as when he's digging through an aquarium's gift shop: "I found Nemo, waterlogged, with his face ripped off and stuffing erupting from his stomach. He had been lodged between the soggy paperbacks of a book display this whole time."
But S.T.'s love of MoFos, and the deep ache he feels for Big Jim and the life he used to lead read as incredibly sincere. He mourns our loss like few other animals in the book do:
I thought about the other Dennises out there. How many more of him were there, creatures who'd been loyal and good to the MoFos? [...] Creatures with scales or bristles or down, slobbering tongues, good hearts, gentle souls, and soft mouths. Creatures who knew the magic of MoFos, what they give us in protection and affection, what it means to love them with all of your heart and nose and beak. The feeling of those funny bald fingers that can open books and cans of refried beans gently sliding down your back. MoFo is family.
Ultimately, though, S.T.'s real challenge is learning that wild animals, like the murder of crows that roosts at the nearby university campus, are just as creative, resourceful, and lively as the humans he loves. His identity crisis — he so wishes to be human, but isn't and can't become one — is never quite resolved, but he learns, slowly, how to work with his own kind, how to live in this new version of the world.
While it's deeply disconcerting, reading about our own extinction, there is a lot we can learn from S.T. and Dennis the dog's symbiotic relationship in this novel. There's a lot we can learn from S.T.'s getting over his own prejudices about other animals — like seagulls and penguins — in order to work with them. In his wholesale love of us, a species a fellow crow calls "a plague on the earth ... not able to control their numbers or their consumption of the land, and so Nature did it for them," S.T. ultimately gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, we still have a chance to turn things around before Nature is so fed up that she really does set her sights on destroying us for good.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.