First published back in November of 2011, ‘Animal Kingdom’ formed British author Iain Rob Wright’s second full length novel to see publication.

DLS Synopsis:
It was a day-out that Joe had been looking forward to for quite a while.  And it was all because he hadn’t seen his son, Danny, for months.  But that was just the way things were when you became divorced and were trying to piece your life back together.  But today was going to be good.  And their first stop that Saturday morning was to the local Zoo.

But that morning was to become the morning where the world would suddenly change dramatically.  That was the morning when, for seemingly no reason whatsoever, the entire animal kingdom would suddenly turn on mankind.  Every species and type, (thankfully other than the birds) would all of a sudden rise up against humanity, in a rage of savage hatred.

And so, together with a handful of fellow survivors, Joe and Danny attempt to barricade themselves inside the relative sanctuary of one of the zoo’s many buildings; hoping that rescue will arrive soon.  But outside the hordes of animals are becoming organised.  Under the watchful guidance of their apparent leader – Nero, the silverback gorilla, the animals are beginning their siege on the zoo’s enclosure.

Inside the building, the few survivors quickly find that they have their own problems.  Key-investor to the zoo, Christopher Randall, is throwing his weight around on a power-trip.  Whilst the heavily tattooed Scot named Victor is already showing how intimidating he can be.  Meanwhile a bible-bashing religious nut named Shirley is preaching her apocalyptical beliefs upon the other seven survivors – whether they want to hear it or not.

The added pressure of their immediate confinement together is already taking its toll.  Their clashing personalities and individual ideas for survival are becoming a real problem.  And outside the animals are starting to wage the war that could potentially end it all.  The group’s time, and potentially that of the whole of humanity, is quickly drawing to a close…

DLS Review:
Following on from ‘The Final Winter’ (2011) Iain Rob Wright has once again embarked on another apocalyptic-style end-of-the-world scenario, shown purely from a small and localised environment.  Here, instead of a typical British pub (ala Wright’s previous novel), our handful of survivors are this time situated in a zoo.  And here the threat is not such a pseudo-religious-doomed-mankind affair.  Instead, although it’s never properly divulged as to why it is happening (although hinted at in the later shorts), the potential end of humanity is ultimately brought about by a sudden uprising of the animal kingdom.

Like an apocalyptical cross between George Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ (1968) and William Kotzwinkle’s ‘Doctor Rat’ (1976), Wright’s ‘Animal Kingdom’ was apparently spawned from the initial desire to write a zombie-apocalypse novel.  The end result is certainly far better than simply tagging on another post-apocalyptic zombie story to an already well and truly over-saturated subgenre.

Wright’s writing ability has clearly come along leaps and bounds since ‘The Final Winter’ (2011).  The dog-eat-dog atmosphere and desperate intensity of the survivors’ predicament is much more immediate.  The snappy rhythm and general flow of the events that unfold are more in tune with the plot – unravelling at an increasing rate until it’s finally time to play that final card.

However, what really lets the novel down somewhat is the limited and somewhat blasé approach to characterisation.  Wright has all the right elements, with individual character traits shoe-horned into the tale like there’s no tomorrow (which indeed there might not be!).  But the characters can’t just stand on their own two feet with these singular traits alone.  Joe is a giant of a man, along with being a divorcee – sadly end of story there.  Danny is his 90’s wrestling-mad son – age pretty much unknown and not much else to say there either.  Grace suffers from a form of OCD that makes her want to hurt herself unless she’s had her medication – and that’s about all we’re given on her.  Bill is gay and black – end of.  Mason is the zoo curator – so who needs any more than that, right?  Shirley is an aged religious nut; once again, that’s all we really see of her.  And Victor is a homophobic racist Scot with a psychotic side to him and little else apparently.  The character of Randall (a very Harry Cooper-esque character) is the only one who is given any further development or exploratory depth into his personality.  Admittedly it’s not much more, but Wright was at least on the right lines with making the character a little more human.

To be honest, the dialogue used by these cardboard cut-out characters isn’t really up to much too.  It’s basic and hits all the right points, but doesn’t come across as even remotely real or anything other than another method to deliver points for the storyline with.  It’s certainly a shame, but not too compromising of the overall enjoyment of the novel.

Characterisation and the dialogue aside, the tale does hurtle along with plenty of excitement and a snowballing pace.  Yes there are shovel-loads of action and comic book style bloodshed.  It’s not shocking or gritty, but more playfully pulpish in its exaggerated frolicking with a condensed-Armageddon style of plot.

To be honest I enjoyed reading the novel from start to end, so I’m reluctant to say anything too scathing about it.  It was a fun read, with plenty of action-packed scenes to keep you flying through the pages.  Okay, so it did start to get a tad too ridiculous at times, but that’s perhaps half the joy of the tale.  And the ultimate finale was a little too abrupt and snappish in its delivery.  But it was still a monstrously entertaining read ensuring a thick smirk was plastered across my face throughout.

The book also includes a collection of bonus short stories set in this new ‘Animal Kingdom’ universe – very much in the style of David Moody’s ‘Autumn: The Human Condition’ (2005).  These are as follows:

Clocking Off – 4 pages
Jeff, along with all his fellow colleges at the Stote Investments chemical plant, had been sent home from work after becoming exposed to a large dose of their SIRT1 compound following a large-scale spillage.  Now at home, he was relaxing with a couple of days off, with just his wife and pets as company.  But his cat, King, was beginning to get a little on the frisky side…

This swift little short plays along with the whole ‘possible cause for the outbreak’ scenario in a similar fashion to the meteor storm that was mentioned in Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ (1968).  Refreshingly, the short doesn’t even pretend to work up to anything other than a predictable ending of animal attacking fun.  But it’s quick and simple and gets the suggested ‘possible cause’ requirement down in almost record time.  As a stand-alone short, it would be quite a poor read.  However, alongside the main tale (as it was obviously always meant to be) it works well in thickening out the writer’s whole ‘Animal Kingdom’ plot.

Howard’s Wood – 4 pages
After Grace left Howard his life gradually become devoid of any form of companionship whatsoever.  And following his incredible good fortune in becoming a millionaire off his first published novel, Howard was feeling like he now had everything but the one thing he wanted.  However, whilst walking around his private woodland that surrounded his impressive home, Howard found his luck was finally running out for good.

Here we have a small expansion on the secondary character of Grace from the main tale, offering up a brief insight into her previous love life with the introduction of the tragic fellow of Howard.  The short doesn’t have a whole lot in it, but lays down a quick backstory before diving into a last minute ‘Night Of The Lepus’ (1972) style ending.  As a side note, Wright really missed a trick in not titling the short ‘Howard’s End’ which would have been so much more apt and delightfully pun-tastic.

The Hunt – 6 pages
Clive Middlesex is a Master Huntsman and very proud of it.  And that’s why, on that fateful Saturday morning, he was to be out hunting on his trusty horse Petronella.  Furthermore, for this particular hunt, he and his fellow huntsmen were being filmed by a television crew.  And so it was important that the hunt was shown in all its spectacular glory.  And not just revelling in the gore of the kill…

You’ve gotta love a good short that’s drenched in irony.  Oh yes, we all know where this one’s going.  We had the delightful end guessed from just reading the title.  But it works and it’s delivered incredibly well, with plenty of meaty backstory and supporting layers.  This is perhaps Wright’s best example of his writing potential in the book (even though it’s so short).  The characterisation of Middlesex is far further developed than any other character we have been introduced to.  And it just flows well, with enough padding to make it a good solid piece of engaging fiction.

Home – 4 pages
Jane was at home alone when the proverbial shit hit the fan.  And as the unbelievable stories of animals turning on mankind started being broadcast across every channel, Jane’s thoughts went out to her son Danny and where he was with her ex-husband.  A zoo of all places.  And now, she couldn’t get hold of Joe.  And the animals outside were getting closer…

An altogether depressing short, with barely a glimmer of hope to be pulled out of it.  The short does little other than to serve as a slight expansion on the main tale’s principal protagonist via a deeper divulgence of his backstory.  The short is grim and emotive and ends perfectly in-tone with the rest of the quick story.

Behold, The Beasts Of War – 4 pages
Corporal Nick Robson had already seen more than his fair share of the war against the animals.  Wave after wave of the beasts had surged over their military ranks.  And the animals were undoubtedly becoming wiser to mankind’s defences.  Their attacks more organised.  And now, as he surveyed the land before him from behind their hastily erected barricade, he knew that much, much more was to come…

World War Z’ (2006) meets ‘Animal Kingdom’.  Here, Wright throws down a brief glimpse of the war to come.  A depressingly bleak vision of a military response to the attacking hordes of the animals.  Admittedly, the short doesn’t really hold up that well to its epic-sounding title, but nonetheless, delivers a firm kick to the guts for the continued development of Wright’s animal-attacking premise.

Sanctuary – 4 pages
Caroline was alone now; wandering the deserted and ravaged streets of Leicester in the hope of rescue or some form of sanctuary.  She hadn’t seen a living soul since she was with her small group of wandering survivors.  But they were all gone now.  Dead.  But up ahead she could just make out the outline of a hastily erected barricade.  An outpost for soldiers to defend against the hordes of animals.  But sanctuary in this new ravaged world is a very fickle thing…

For Wright’s last short in his ‘Animal Kingdom’ premise Wright keeps with the downbeat bleakness, this time taking the story on to the possible end days of mankind, where the beasts that have risen up against humanity have swept over everything, killing and destroying as they go.  Slight attentions to emotive details make this a much stronger addition than the sum of its parts; and certainly a grand one to finish Wright’s overriding input with.

The Night Of The Squirrels – by Eric S Brown – 10 pages
Scott found himself alone and running through the dark woods in the desperate hope of finding safety somewhere.  After the squirrels had stormed their house, and his mother and father had succumbed to their overwhelming numbers, he had managed to escape.  And now he was on the way to old man Worley’s farm.  After all, he was an ex-military man with plenty of strength behind him.  Scott was sure that he’d take him in… Meanwhile, Lieutenant William Gunter and two escorting soldiers were on their way flying over the woods in a helicopter on a rescue mission for the very same Colonel Worley.  But the woods are far from empty.  In their depths lurk swarms of squirrels as well as a much, much larger and fiercer threat…

Penned by prolific short story writer, Eric S Brown, this final addition to the ‘Animal Kingdom’ premise is certainly a strange one.  At first it feels like it fits in nicely – the Leicester setting, the small nods towards details that Wright had already set down, and the overall ‘apocalyptic’ backdrop.  Indeed, all the correct ingredients appeared to be there.  And the short is well-written to boot.  But for some reason, possibly known only to Brown himself, he has included some strange sasquatch type of beasts roaming around the woods!  Not only does mankind have the animals rising up against them, but now they’ve got mythical beasts to cope with too.  Okay, so ‘Animal Kingdom’ was never meant to be an altogether realistic tale, but to throw in a whole new form of beastie right at the very end is just plain stupid.  Personally, I would have preferred to have kept Brown’s ‘Squirrel and Sasquatch’ based addition out of the book.  It’s well written and exciting, but veers off the overall storyline just too much to justify its inclusion.

The book as a whole runs for a total of 292 pages with ‘Animal Kingdom’ itself running for 253 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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