Feral Creatures is the sequel to one of my favorite books, Hollow Kingdom. I liked Feral Creatures a great deal, but it very much has the feel of a middle book in a series (which it is) given that it relies too much on Hollow Kingdom to work as a stand alone and it has a cliffhanger ending. As a stand alone, it probably is good but not life-changing, but as part of a series it is stunning. This book has no romantic content unless one counts the deep passion that a particular musk-ox has for an abandoned ATV.
This book manages to successfully juggle action, horror, philosophy, excitement, tragedy, and humor, which is no small feat. However, some of these juggling acts probably work best if the reader has read the first book and developed an attachment to the characters already. I admire the creativity of this series, which re-imagines and re-invigorates the idea of a zombie apocalypse by portraying the event and it’s aftermath through the eyes of animals, who are not directly affected. Every animal, especially the narrator, S.T., feels completely true to the nature of their species while also completely relatable. In this second book, the zombie apocalypse has passed and been replaced by the advent of new monsters along with basic survival challenges.
It is not possible to review this book or even its basic premise, without copious spoilers for Hollow Kingdom!
SPOILERS FOR HOLLOW KINGDOM AHEAD!
Both books are narrated by S.T. (short for Shit Turd) world’s best crow, and take place after an apocalyptic event has killed off nearly all the humans. S.T. remains an utter delight as he struggles to raise Dee, the (probably) last human on earth, or at least in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, following a zombie-esque plague that killed humans but left animals unscathed. S.T. is aided by a number of animals, and because S.T.’s wry and profane humor in the last book endures in this one, many of his parenting trials are hilarious. This is, to date, the best description of parenting an infant of any demanding species that I have ever come across:
Dee had the resting habits of an insomniac ant, so the five snowy owls and I were the most sleep-deprived feathereds in the history of the big beautiful blue. I witnessed The Hook – really a king among snowy owls – fall asleep mid-flight and smack headfirst into a quaking aspen. And then he just lay there, enjoying a moment’s peace.
As Dee goes through various life stages, with the majority of the story taking place when she is about thirteen to fourteen years old. Feral Creatures excels at conveying the terrible love and fear and exasperation of being a parent. As humorous as S.T.’s narration can be, the book is saturated with the kind of fear one can only feel about the safety of a deeply loved person. Readers should know that a lot of animals die, that a lot of scary, sad, and frequently fatal things happen to humans and other animals and plants, and that there are some very intense monsters that produce a lot of body horror. Readers should also know that some characters in both this book and Hollow Kingdom struggle with episodes of severe depression, which S.T. calls “the Black Tide.”
As with the previous book, the sense of place is grounded and lovely, especially the scenes set in Toksook Bay, Alaska. I would like to award this book extra points for building an entire metaphor around the Yup’ik dish akutaq, which I have eaten and which I miss, and for S.T. taking great pains to read Dee stories about the history and mythology of her biological relatives, the Yup’ik people who once lived in the area but who, like every other human, fell victim to the plague. Every animal, every rock, every plant feels both relatable and authentic, making the book something of a gentle exercise in empathy and the “reciprocity” of nature.
Maybe reading this book, in which S.T. struggles initially to raise a human and then finally to accept that his nestling is grown-up and has become her own person, wasn’t a great choice for me as my own empty nest years loom ahead, given all the scary things that happen to Dee. Or maybe it was the best choice, given that S.T. learns to accept that scary things will happen, and to trust the competence of his nestling who is all grown and making her own choices. OK, fine. It was the best choice even though I would prefer that both S.T.’s nestling and my own stay safely wrapped in cotton wool forever. While I spent most of the book in a state of high anxiety, the message and overall tone of the book is one of resilience, love, and hope.
I highly recommend reading the first book in the series, Hollow Kingdom, prior to reading this one. There is a moment on page 11 of Feral Creatures that terrified me so much that my chest hurt and my hands shook. I kept telling myself that all the major characters could not possibly die as early as page 11, but my hands shook nonetheless. That kind of response comes from deep emotional involvement with the characters, which came from the previous book.
The first book also explains how we got here (insert record scratch sound effect). Although S.T. provides a convenient summary of events at the start of Feral Creatures, you won’t want to miss how S.T., along with Dennis the heroic bloodhound, became heroes. This remarkable series uniquely combined animal behavior, humor, horror, and stubborn optimism. Reading these books has helped me think about the world, and my own nest, in a different way.