Author: Vic James
High five to Del Rey Books for the advance copy!
The blurb for this book had one of my “sign me up” phrases: upstairs-downstairs drama.* Toss in magic with a societal power imbalance and I’m all in. Gilded Cage takes place in contemporary Britain where the traditional monarchy has been overthrown, killed off by magic-wielding (Skilled) nobles. They form the Parliament of Equals, but they’re only Equal to each other – all non-Skilled individuals must serve ten years of slavery at some point in their lives. It’s been deemed the “natural” order of things.
Abi is prepared to sacrifice her dreams to keep her family together. She throws away her chance to go to a prestigious medical school so that her family can do their slavedays together, and hopefully come out of the decade physically and mentally intact. She gets them all accepted to serve at the Kyneston estate, home of the Jardines, the powerful Equal Founding Family. But when their escort to the estate arrives, things begin to fall apart – the Jardines have no use for her brother Luke, and have reassigned him to the brutal slavetown Millmoor.
In Millmoor, Luke sees the darkest parts of the slavedays. Malnourished, mistreated, overworked slaves are crammed into dilapidated housing and are constantly at risk of finding themselves at the wrong end of a Security truncheon. To add insult to injury, the slavetowns aren’t even run by Equals, but commoners who prosper through the suffering of their fellow non-Skilled men. But things are stirring in Millmoor – talk of revolution has a few bold individuals risking life and limb for a chance at freedom. Luke, initially despairing that he may never see his family again, finds a new sense of life and purpose among this greater cause.
While the brutality of the slavedays is overt at Millmoor, it’s coated with a false veneer at Kyneston. Abi’s family members (herself, mom, dad and youngest sister Daisy) are all assigned work that correlates with their talents, they have a small house, and are generally left to do their work without any thanks, which is a step up from being brutally targeted. At first it seems Abi was correct in that estate work would be less potentially damaging than the danger-laden slavetown factories. However, she gradually learns that working around the Equals carries its own risk. The specifics of Skillwork are largely shrouded in rumor among commoners, which means each new discovery is revealed with fresh horror for Abi. With a single gesture, they can choke off a person’s breath, send them flying across the room, shatter doors and windows, and even rip away memories.
While Luke’s story largely focuses on the Equal vs. commoner inequality, the accounts from Kyneston reveal that there’s just as much division among the nobles themselves – not even the entire Jardine family is on the same page. Heir Gavar is brutish and ill-suited to the finer machinations of politics. Second son Jenner is good-hearted and inexplicably Skilless, much to the chagrin of his father. And third son Silyen, who should by birth order be the farthest from power, uses his conniving mind and immense Skill to put them all to shame with the behind-the-scenes deals he brokers.
The set-up of Gilded Cage is ambitious – there are a lot of factions, family histories and context pieces to be introduced. This unfortunately bogs down the story for quite a bit of the book, and things felt stagnant until (key word UNTIL) about the last 50 pages. Because when this book hits its stride, it really hits it. Threads from previously disjointed accounts begin to weave together and culminate in the breathtaking finale I was hoping for. It has everything – murder, betrayal, a descent into darkness and an amazing depiction of earth-shattering Skill. Now that the kinks of the world have been worked out, I have high hopes that Tarnished City will continue in this same vein.
Despite my overall positive vibe for this new series, there are a few specific issues I want to address for anyone looking to jump in:
- Abi’s instant infatuation with one of the (I’ll keep him unnamed) noble sons. Ugggggghhh not buying it. Just because you think he’s handsome and he treats you with a modicum of decency doesn’t mean you love him. And believe me, the “instant” part of “instalove” is pretty much exactly what happens.
- The estate slavery comes across as a little too shiny sometimes. Author Vic James does incorporate feelings of dehumanization on Abi’s part, but for the most part her family is treated pretty well. There are instances of extreme brutality by other Equals to their slaves (just remember: Dog) that help combat this and eventually dispel Abi’s eye-rolling naïveté, though they didn’t quite balance it out for me. However, I think book 2 will portray the inhumanity of the slavedays more potently, as the veil has been ripped away for Abi by the end of Gilded Cage, and her ignorance is what largely drives this issue.
- NOT ENOUGH SILYEN. He is hands down the best thing about this book, but unfortunately doesn’t show up a whole lot, though when he does it’s always spine-tingling. He’s a Moriarty-type character, a puppeteer who likes to keep the balance of favors owed tipped in his direction. Silyen is playing the long game, and I can’t wait until he reveals his full hand. Need more more more more more.
Despite these drawbacks, I’d definitely recommend reading Gilded Cage, since I think it has a lot of potential to grow into the strengths it exhibits toward the end. Even though it sometimes drags, the incorporated history of Equals vs. commoners adds a lot of depth to the world, including allusions to alternate versions of the American Civil War and the French Revolution. Also watch for these unusual character pairings that go beyond the expected romantic or hero/villain matches, and really intrigue me with how they might reveal true natures and motives:
- Silyen/Euterpe – they share the best chapter in the whole book
- Daisy/Gavar – I’m sensing future family tension a la Percy Weasley working for Barty Crouch
- Bouda/Lord Whittam Jardine – two power-hungry peas in a pod
Gilded Cage is out on shelves today, with Tarnished City due to arrive September 5. And while the “overthrow the establishment” setup is nothing new, there is a surprising amount of side threads and schemes brewing that make this much more than a simple revolutionary story arc. Locations that are only referenced in Gilded Cage are primed to be full-on settings in subsequent installments, and you can tell that there are plenty of secrets simmering just below the surface, especially where Silyen is concerned. So give it a chance and hang on to the end, because I think you’ll find it’s worth it.
*Do I love Downton Abbey? Yes I do.