As much as I enjoyed Vic James’ 2017 debut novel, Gilded Cage, I thought there were a few missteps and odd choices, and I wasn’t sure what that meant for the second book in her DARK GIFTS trilogy, Tarnished City (2018). I am pleased to report that Tarnished City blew all of my expectations out of the water, improving on the first novel in every possible way and preparing readers for world-shaking consequences with a true nail-biter of a cliffhanger ending. (There’s very little hand-holding here, so I do recommend reading the books in close sequence if you’re at all fuzzy on previous details.)
Tarnished City picks up mere moments after Gilded Cage ends, with Abigail Hadley’s frantic escape south from her family’s exile to Millmoor and her younger brother, Luke, on his way to imprisonment after a murder at Kyneston that he barely remembers committing. Abigail knows the real identity of Luke’s Skilled ally, the man he knew as Doctor Jackson, and she believes joining the group’s efforts to liberate unSkilled people from their slavedays is the best way to save her brother from torturous punishment. Luke, now in the custody of the sadistic Lord Crovan, travels north into Scotland, arriving at a most remarkable castle filled with other Condemned and unSkilled people. What happens within the castle is more devious and terrifying than ever could have been expected, but Luke’s time in Millmoor changed him, and he’s far from the terrified and unsure young man he was before.
Meanwhile, the marriage plans of Gavar Jardine and Bouda Matravers are spurred on by the Jardine patriarch’s deft acquisitions of political power — all of which hinge on the brutal crackdown of anyone who isn’t an Equal, or even the right kind of Equal — though it’s clear that the two young people despise one another. Gavar believes that improving the living and working conditions in slavedays towns would make people happier and therefore better workers, though he never considers anything as radical as the abolition of slavedays. Bouda proves herself to be as ruthlessly ambitious as her future father-in-law, willing to do and say just about anything in order to climb the political ladder, including mass murder of dissidents who reject Equal rule. The level of political and social commentary in this series is extremely high, and extremely topical, and readers who are passionate about institutionalized inequality in their own lives are sure to appreciate the fact that James neither pulls punches nor condescends to her audience, despite the Young Adult categorization of the DARK GIFTS trilogy.
James’ dystopian vision expands a little in Tarnished City, taking readers to locations as gloomy and terrifying as the Skilled people who call them home. I appreciated that she made sure to further reinforce how the entire world is different as a result of this rigid social stratification, whether through comparing liberated France from caste-bound England, or even the brief mention that Skilled Japanese people use entirely different verb endings from unSkilled Japanese speakers. There’s an admirable level of world-building at work in this trilogy, and James handles it adroitly, doling out small or large details as they might occur naturally to characters in a normal course of thought or dialogue rather than blocky expository paragraphs. And despite the darkness and danger in her characters’ lives, she leavens it with real moments of empathy and compassion, and bolsters it all with Abi and Luke’s conviction that life can be better for everyone, not just their family; that hope and encouragement keeps the series from being unbearably bleak.
Tarnished City’s shifts in narration are more smoothly handled than in Gilded Cage, and my perception was that James pulled back on the number of points-of-view, though that may not have been the actual case. Abi’s character is far more laudable and heroic this time around, though it takes her a little time and effort to come to her senses regarding Jenner Jardine. By placing more of an emphasis on Luke and Abi and contrasting them with Bouda and Gavar, James provides a wide range of experiences and perceptions, which is used to particular emphasis when those characters reflect on their individual takeaways of shared moments. And by throwing Silyen Jardine into the mix, the entire novel takes on a shroud of mystery — who is this strange young man, really, and what on earth is he actually about? His experiments with Skill and power prove that he has a keen mind, but I still haven’t the slightest idea whose best interest is being served by any of his actions. Additionally, there are some new characters that I hope we’ll see again, and some familiar characters undergo fascinating transitions that could to be truly revolutionary.
Tarnished City is an example of that rare book, the second in a trilogy which improves and expands upon the first, and which paves the way for a conclusion in which everything is at stake and no one can be considered safe. It’s my understanding that the third book, Bright Ruin, is currently slated for an October 2018 release in the U.S., and you can bet I’ll be waiting with bated breath to find out how it all shakes out. Highly recommended.
Tarnished City (2018), the second book in Vic James’s DARK GIFTS YA fantasy series, is a hard-hitting novel that picks right up where Gilded Cage left off, without any infodumping to remind the reader what happened in the first book. In this alternate version of our world, England is controlled by a minority group, the ironically-named Equals, who have magical powers and brutally use them to enforce their rule on everyone who isn’t magically skilled. The heaviest burden is the slavedays, a ten year period that each ordinary person is required to spend serving at the whim of the Equals.
In Gilded Cage (here’s your warning of some spoilers for that book), the Hadley family decided to serve their slavedays together, hoping to work them out on the Jardine estate in relative comfort. But the experience has turned disastrous in only a few months. Their teenage son Luke is now a prisoner of the sadistic Lord Crovan, accused of murdering a prominent Equal. Older daughter Abigail is a fugitive on the run, and the Hadley parents have been sent to the industrial slavetown Millmoor (conveniently removing them from the action). The youngest daughter Daisy remains with the Jardines as a babysitter for the baby daughter of their eldest son, Gavar Jardine.
Tarnished City, like Gilded Cage, shifts between the viewpoints of several characters. Its primary focus is on the teenage siblings Luke and Abi. Luke, now wearing Lord Crovan’s magical golden slave collar, is helicoptered to a remote estate in Scotland, where the worst political prisoners are given over to Crovan’s sadistic control. Luke is terrified of the mental and physical torture for which Crovan is infamous, but what actually happens at the inescapable Eilean Dòchais is something he had never imagined. Abi heads to the south of England to find the revolutionaries ― including some sympathetic Equals ― that her brother Luke had previously been working with. Her hope and goal is to rescue Luke with their assistance.
But Tarnished City also follows the viewpoints of a few key Equals: the oldest son and Jardine heir Gavar, a playboy who is beginning to take life more seriously and is finding himself at odds with his father’s plans to control England; Javar’s fiancée Bouda, an ambitious young woman who will do almost anything to increase her own power; and the youngest Jardine brother Silyan, an immensely gifted Equal who is following his own mysterious agenda.
Life is chaotic and holds unforeseen twists for all of these characters and others. The odds against the commoners and their few Equal allies are nearly overwhelming in the face of the immense magical powers of the Equals. Vic James uses this setting to examine the ills of slavery and humanity’s tendency to abuse power.
The truth was, everyone in Britain wore a collar they couldn’t see. Millions of people, unquestioningly obeying the Equals. Slaving for ten years in appalling conditions. Subject to rulers they couldn’t choose or criticize. Confined to a country they couldn’t leave until their days were done. And accepting it all as normal.
Better to wear a collar you could see. That way you never forgot.
Tarnished City is a darker YA Fantasy, focusing on a culture of modern slavery that leads to foreseeable results, including murder and public executions, torture (both physical and psychological), profound betrayal, and hinted-at sexual assault.
James’s characters are complex and do unexpected things. After two books, I still haven’t figured out the end game for some key characters, and whether they’re trustworthy or not, which adds a great element of suspense and intrigue. Two characters in particular undergo shocking shifts in their behavior and outlook, heading in opposite directions from where they started. In both cases it improves the plot tremendously, although the shift in characterization is so profound it left me with the sneaking suspicion that James had a change of heart and plans after writing Gilded Cage, possibly in response to some criticism of one particular plotline (highlight to reveal spoiler): the romance between Jenner Jardine and Abi, which was inherently unequal. Whether or not that’s true, I’m still a fan of the new directions for these characters.
I’m also a fan of this DARK GIFTS series, which creates an imaginative though brutal magical society, brimming with political and social intrigue and upheaval, and uses it to pose some serious questions. Highly recommended!