In the world of Gilded Cage (2017), there are those who are called Equals ― but there’s a deep divide between Equals, who have magical Skills, and the commoners, the Skilless, and they are decisively not equal. In England the Equals are both the aristocrats and the sole parliament, and they hold all the power, with the magical ability to enforce it.
One of the ways the Equals use their power is to require all commoners to spend ten years of their lives as slaves, known as slavedays. There are some interesting rules associated with this 10-year slavery law: there are advantages to doing it early in your life (such as the right to own a home, travel abroad, and hold certain jobs), you are required to begin them no later than age 55, and those under age 18 are to serve in the same place with their parents.
When 18-year-old Abigail Hadley finds out that the Jardine family, perhaps the most powerful Equal family in England, is looking for more house-slaves and will accept her family, her family decides to take their slavedays together, including her 10-year-old sister Daisy and 16-year-old brother Luke. The idea is that they’ll all be together at the Jardine family’s sumptuous Kyneston estate, as opposed to one of the factory towns, where life is harsh and brutal. But the Equals break their own rules about keeping minor children with their parents, when the Jardines decide they don’t need Luke at their estate. He is sent the industrial slavetown of Millmoor to do manual labor, while the rest of the family goes to Kyneston.
Abi promptly falls for Jenner, the middle of the three Jardine brothers, and the one who, seemingly inexplicably, has no magical Skill. Meanwhile, at Millmoor, Luke falls in with a secretive group of rebels who are trying to improve life for the slaves and, ultimately, to bring about a revolution in England, against tremendously long odds. Daisy has her own role to fill, that of caring for the illegitimate baby daughter of Gavar, the oldest Jardine brother; surprisingly, this leads to some real influence for such a young girl. And among the Equals, there are several individuals and factions competing for power.
Gilded Cage is told from multiple characters’ points of view, both Equal and commoner, which may muddle the storyline for some readers, but I found these interweaving viewpoints and plotlines interesting. The story focuses primarily on the political intrigue and the horrors that the Equals impose on the slave population. Slaves are legally “non-persons” and have no legal rights, and there are many Equals, and even commoners who oversee the slaves, who abuse that relationship. The connection to actual slavery in our world is apparent.
The world-building in Gilded Cage is well-done for a young adult book. Vic James slips in some explanations of how Great Britain’s society ended up where it currently is. For example, the slavedays began in 1642, with Charles I, the “Last King,” which matches up with the real-life date of Charles’ failed negotiations that led to the start of the English Civil War. We are also given some information that puts the situation in Britain in a broader perspective, with some intriguing links to actual history:
But many countries are governed by commoners: France, where the people rose up against the Skilled aristocracy and slaughtered them in the streets of Paris. Or China, where our kind retired to mountain monasteries long ago. Or the Union States of America, which deems us enemy aliens and bars us from their ‘Land of the Free,’ though their cousins in the Confederate States live as we do.
I was worried that Luke’s part of the story would be unalloyed misery and angst, but his part of the tale ended up being much more engaging than I expected. On the other hand, Abi’s part of the tale, focusing on her relationship with Jenner, was a let-down. The romance feels under-baked, and there’s the distasteful aspect of it also being a slave-master relationship, despite Jenner’s best intentions. The romance could have been skipped with no real loss to the story. And after their initial appearance, unfortunately, the Hadley parents pretty much become non-entities in this story, other than to futilely express concern at what their teenage children are going through.
The Equal characters are a varying group of personalities, ranging from a small group of Equals secretly helping the slaves, to the kind-hearted but largely non-influential Jenner, to the cruel and stony-hearted Bouda, Gavar’s fiancée, who shares Lord Jardine’s contempt and disregard for slaves’ rights. Thanks to Ilona Andrews’ KATE DANIELS series, I’m familiar with the term “bouda” as relating to hyenas; Wikipedia clarifies that bouda (or buda) is the power of the evil eye and the ability to shapeshift into a hyena. It’s an amusingly appropriate name for this scheming young woman, whose view on commoners is exemplified by her support for a “perfectly logical scheme to assist the long-term unemployed by returning them to slavery for twelve months’ respite.” The willful self-deception that permeates that entire sentence is mind-boggling.
There are several repugnant characters in this book, like Bouda, but there are also some who are much more than what they initially appear to be. Even the oldest Jardine brother Gavar, who initially seems an unredeemable brute ― in a bout of anger, he shoots and kills his former girlfriend, a would-be runaway slave, in the first few pages ― has a more complex personality than I first would have guessed. The most fascinating person of all is the youngest Jardine brother, Silyen, a very bright and extraordinarily magically gifted 17 year old who looks to be playing an extreme long game. I’m still trying to figure him out… and for that I’ll have to wait for the sequel.
Overall, Gilded Cage is a rather bleak story of abuse of power by those with superpowers, with some terrible things happening to good characters, but the story is lightened by some glimpses of hope. The second book in this DARK GIFTS trilogy, Tarnished City, will be published in September 2017. I’m dying to find out what happens next.
In contemporary England, Luke is trying and failing to revise for his exams whilst his little sister Daisy has a birthday party and his older sister Abi suns herself next to him. It’s a familiar domestic scene for any reader, but the similarities to our contemporary times end there in Vic James‘ debut, Gilded Cage. Luke’s parents have decided to sign the family up to their slave days: an obligatory decade of servitude for commoners without magical skill. Abi had managed to assign the entire family to serve the Jardines, a powerful magical aristocratic family, but when Luke is split up from the others, things take a turn for the worse.
When Luke gets sent to Millmoor, a “slave town” which is akin to a concentration camp, the family is sent into disarray, but Abi, Daisy and their parents have no other choice but to serve the Jardines at Kyneston, their sprawling mansion estate. Headed by a formidable father and his meek wife, the Jardine family consists of three sons: Garven — the eldest and most intimidating, with an illegitimate lovechild born by a commoner without magical skill; Jenner — the problematic middle child who was born with no magical skill whatsoever, despite coming from one of the most powerful magical families in England; and finally Silyen, the most powerful and enigmatic son of all.
Vic James is setting up quite the cast for herself. In addition to those already mentioned are a social-climbing sociopath engaged to the oldest Jardine son, Garven, a scrappy orphan who has grown up in the slums of Millmoor and a renegade Doctor intent on helping the commoners without Skill, to name a few. Whilst some of these supporting characters are wonderfully fleshed out and entertaining, James could’ve pruned back on the viewpoint characters somewhat. Whilst writing the viewpoint of said sociopath was no doubt enjoyable, the pacing of the story would’ve been more consistent had she focused on just a few, choice characters.
A turbulent political upheaval provides the background to the character intrigue. The commoners are dissatisfied with the oppression they face — and rightly so — whilst the Skilled elite try to quash the discontent. But with certain Skilled aristocrats themselves sympathetic to the commoner’s plight, things get complicated. Add to the mix formidable magic that can compel people as well as erase select memories, and you can be sure to have a plot full of twists and surprises.
Readers will not be surprised that Gilded Cage marks the start of a trilogy, DARK GIFTS (mainly due to the massive cliffhanger it ends on). With many questions left unanswered and the beginnings of a host of romantic plot threads lined up, readers will no doubt be left hankering for the next instalment.
In reading through Tadiana and Ray’s reviews, I find that I agree with essentially everything they’ve already written about Gilded Cage. It’s got a fascinating premise bound up in intriguing world-building, and though there are occasionally too many point-of-view characters (including the sociopath/heir, Gavar Jardine) I quickly found myself immersed in the tale Vic James is spinning.
Luke Hadley was, for me, the most compelling narrative, especially during his time at Millmoor among the revolutionaries. His shift from frightened teenager to determined young man is especially well-written, and his fervent desire to enact change within a deeply unfair system is admirable to say the least. On the other hand, his older sister Abigail’s insta-crush on Jenner Jardine was ridiculous, and Jenner himself is utterly without personality or interest. I don’t go in for master-slave love stories, and I think this tactic was a poor choice on James’ part.
But overall, Gilded Cage is quite good, and is surprisingly well-paced, containing just enough information, excitement, and genuine surprises for an introductory volume while setting the stage for Tarnished City, the upcoming second volume in the DARK GIFTS trilogy. I’m looking forward to what will happen next to these characters, especially after the literally-explosive events at the end of this book.