When humans start losing their eyeballs and grinding their fingers down into stubs, a pet talking crow might be the only animal who cares enough to save them. Caught in the liminal space between bird and human, "S.T.," the talking crow who longs to be a person, would do anything to save his owner and best friend Big Jim from a technology-fueled disease turning people into murderous zombies. Accompanied by his trusty steed, a bloodhound named Dennis, S.T. searches for healthy humans while evading escaped zoo animals and rescuing pets trapped inside houses by their lack of opposable thumbs, all while cracking crude jokes and bemoaning the rude wild birds that had made fun of him for years.
It’s a bizarre concept for a book, no doubt, but it's impressively pulled off by author Kira Jane Buxton, who definitely did not set out to write about sassy crows or the living dead. "If you told me four years ago I was about to write a book with zombies in it, I would have said something is wrong with your crystal ball," she says.
So what changed? She met a baby crow. After finding and trying to rescue a chick she found while walking her dog, the debut novelist became fascinated by the birds and desperate to write about them. Then, one day, an idea came to her: “What if a crow is telling the story of our species? Of our extinction?”
With the beginnings of a plot in mind, Buxton began the research process for the book and for all the creatures that would appear in it, including hippos, octopuses, orangutans, and a menagerie of “feathereds" that S.T. eventually befriends. And before she began writing in the voice of S.T., she read everything about crows she could get her hands on, listened to crow calls while driving, and consulted with biology professor Douglas Wacker at the University of Washington Bothell, the winter home to a roost of over 10,000 American Crows.
Buxton didn’t stop at secondary research about birds for Hollow Kingdom, though. She stocked her yard with unsalted, shelled peanuts and observed the visitors—a crow mating pair she named Dart (male) and T (female)—from the other side of a glass door. Eventually, after many more offerings, the pair allowed Buxton to get closer. “Every time I spend time with birds, everything is on their terms,” the writer says. “It’s always about what they're comfortable with.”
Now the pair doesn’t just come for food. They check in on Buxton for no reason at all, fly with her on walks, and leave what she considers “gifts” like moss and empty cartons of chicken nuggets. T even jumps out at Buxton, seemingly to scare her—an inspiration for S.T’s goofball personality (though T probably curses less than her fictional counterpart). “You don't think you can see a crow smile but, really, I think I’ve seen it,” Buxton says.
Buxton hopes her words will flip people’s biases against crows. These omnivores often get a bad rap as harbingers of death, which isn’t surprising considering they feast on just about everything, including carrion. But the corvids are also extremely intelligent. They memorize faces, use tools, can reason out cause and effect, and even mimic human speech (though not to the degree of S.T.’s mastery). And our “avian shadows,” as she calls them, have expertly adapted to human society, for example, by dropping nuts on roads, where cars crack open their shells for easy snacking.
But crows aren’t Buxton’s only love. She keeps a pollinator yard that attracts hummingbirds and all kinds of other animals. A scene in her backyard even inspired a major theme in the book: Once, a Dark-Eyed Junco, the first species she took a personal interest in, sounded an alarm at the approach of a Red-tailed Hawk, sparking a murder of crows to swarm the predator. In Hollow Kingdom, the book's avian hero uses this wavelength of communication, called Aura in the book, to find other animals and uninfected people that could help preserve the rotting remnants of civilization—a task that turns out to be more difficult than S.T. could imagine.
Despite the dystopian doom and gloom, Buxton felt comforted in imagining a future without human interference. "What made this different is that I didn’t want them (zombies) to be at the forefront," Buxton says. "When we talk about the apocalypse or the end of world, we’re usually talking about the end of our species. It wouldn't necessarily be the same for other species."
She hopes that her book will encourage people to get outside and connect to nature enough to notice environmental connections—especially the way climate change alters the natural world. If you spend time with the birds in your neighborhood, you may begin to see, for example, how climate change affects their migration patterns.
When it comes to climate change, “it's really difficult to know what to do and not fall into a spiral of depression,” Buxton says. “But maybe if we can find other ways to approach it—by humor and literature and voicing a bird—maybe that's a way to help."
Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton, 320 pages, $27.00. Buy it on IndieBound.