Title: Gilded Cage
Author: Vic James
Genre: Dystopia, Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: February 2017
Hardcover: 368 Pages
A darkly fantastical debut set in a modern England where magically gifted aristocrats rule, and commoners are doomed to serve—for readers of Victoria Aveyard and Susanna Clarke
NOT ALL ARE FREE.
NOT ALL ARE EQUAL.
NOT ALL WILL BE SAVED.
Our world belongs to the Equals—aristocrats with magical gifts—and all commoners must serve them for ten years.
But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.
A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.
Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of their noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty—but will her heart pay the price?
A boy dreams of revolution.
Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.
And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.
He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned trilogy
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Hardcover
In an alternate historical version of Britain, the elites rule not only by rite of economic power, but by power of magic, too. “The Equals,” as this class of aristocrat is ironically called, presides over society, runs Parliament, and makes decisions that affect the entirety of the country. For everyone else not born to power or magic, each human owes the Equals a debt by virtue of existing. Everyone must pay ten years of their life in servitude. This slavedom may be taken when you are young, or when you are old–but it must be taken.
Siblings Abi, Luke, and Daisy find themselves in an interesting, but hopeful, situation for their slave days. Thanks to the planning of their parents, and Abi’s organizational and clerical skills, the family has secured joint slave days together at a grand estate, Kyneston, for one of the country’s most storied Equal families. Together, the family Hadley will move to Kyneston, serve their ten years, and then be done. For ten-year-old Daisy, the time with her family in servitude seems like nothing; but for sixteen-year-old Luke, it seems like his entire life. For eighteen-year-old Abi, deferring her entrance to medical school by ten years is a necessary sacrifice she would make for her family, but it hurts nonetheless.
When the time to go to Kyneston comes, however, Luke is told there is no place for him and is whisked away to the slave mines at Milnoor–hard manual labor, from which many slaves do not return whole, if they return at all.
At Kyneston, the family Jardine rules with magic and fear. The elder brother, Gavar, has sired a bastard daughter upon an Equal, who dies trying to escape the estate with their child. The younger brother, Jenner, watches sympathetic to the plight of the commoners; but it is Silyen who possesses all the power, and watches all with calculating eyes. Silyen has magic–unparalleled magic–and has a plan.
For Abi and her younger sister Daisy, the Silyen’s dangerous game could change everything.
For Luke, at Milnoor, every day is a fight to survive–but others at Milnoor want to do more than just survive. They want to fight back. Little by little, game by game, Luke starts to fight, too.
For everyone else, nothing will ever be the same.
Gilded Cage, the first book in a planned series by Vic James, is a dystopian YA novel predicated on the threads of political upheaval, injustice, and magic. At first glance, it all seems somewhat pedestrian–the oppressed 99% rises up against the controlling class, led by firebrand young protagonists who aim to change the world even if it means burning it down in the process. And, to some extent, Gilded Cage is all of those things, wrapped in a Downton Abbey-meets-North and South-style period wrapper. The nice thing about this particular YA dystopia is that the characterization is sure-footed and the plotting deftly executed, with parallels to history and to present day. And, while the source material might be familiar, the experience of reading is still pretty gosh-darn fun.
So here’s what worked in Gilded Cage: the plotting is fast and deft, alternating storylines between Milnoor and Kyneston and ratcheting up the stakes as both Luke and Abi learn more about their respective cages. Similarly, the voices for these protagonists are varied and convincing, and while both heroes are somewhat familiar YA-fare, their dedication to truth and family resonates throughout the book. The other powerful aspect of Gilded Cage is its clear-cut political allegory–certainly it’s applicable today. The political scheming, the passivity of a population that knows shitty things are happening all the time and the injustice of the system, but refusal to do anything about it, is all too believable.
These praises said, there were two elements of Gilded Cage that failed to convince me–the world itself, and the Equal narrators. There’s a mix of modern technology alongside magic, but in an Edwardian era type setting, which felt both jarring and never fully explained. Also jarring and frustrating to read were the intermittent narrator changes to Equals–who aren’t ever as interesting as Abi or Luke as voices, though I did appreciate gaining some perspective from Silyen and others in the upper-echelon of society.
All things said, Gilded Cage is entertaining and certainly worth checking out–I’ll be keeping up to see where the story goes next.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the prologue:
She heard the motorbike first, then the galloping horse—two distant points of noise in the darkness, converging on her as she ran.
Apart from her boots striking the ground, Leah wasn’t making a sound, and neither was the baby she held close. But their pursuers didn’t need to hear them to find them. The only place she could run to was Kyneston’s perimeter wall, and the only hope of escape once she got there was the infant bundled in her arms, her daughter, Libby.
The moon was alternately covered and revealed by high, rapid clouds, but the faint radiance of the wall shone steadily along the horizon. It was like the streak of hallway light beneath a bedroom door, comforting children waking from nightmares.
Was that what her life at Kyneston had become: a nightmare? It had once seemed to fulfill all of her dreams.
The roar of the bike engine was closer now and the thudding hooves had fallen behind. Her pursuers could only be Gavar and Jenner. Both were way off to the left, bearing down in a line that headed straight for her. But Leah had reached the wall first.
She slumped against it for a moment’s relief. One hand rested on the ancient masonry as she dragged in a breath. The wall felt cool beneath her fingers. It was slick with moisture and furred with moss, jarring with the illusion of warmth from the unnaturally glowing brickwork. But that was the power of Skill for you. There was nothing natural about this place or the people that lived here.
Time to go.
“Please, my darling. Please,” Leah whispered to her child, pulling aside the edge of the blanket she’d knitted and kissing Libby’s silky head.
The baby fussed as Leah gently untangled an arm and took her small hand. Chest heaving with terror as much as exertion, Leah leaned on the wall and pressed her baby’s palm to it.
Where the tiny fingers touched the weather-beaten brick, a greater brightness bloomed beneath them. As Leah watched, the luminescence spread, flowing through the mortar between the bricks. It was weak, but visible nonetheless. And—there!—the light jumped and climbed upward, stronger now, becoming firmer, sharper. It took on outlines: an upright, then an arch. The gate.
From the darkness came a mechanical snarl. The motorbike engine being choked off. Dying.
Then another, closer sound broke into the night: a leisurely hand clap. Leah recoiled as if it had been an actual slap.
Someone was waiting there. And as the tall, slender figure stepped into the spilling light, she saw that, of course, it was him. Silyen. The youngest of the three Jardine brothers, but not the least. He brought them into Kyneston, all those serving their days, and it was his Skill that kept them here on his family’s estate. How could she have imagined he’d let her escape?
The slow applause stopped. One of the boy’s narrow, nail-bitten hands gestured at the vaulting ironwork.
“Be my guest,” Silyen said, as if inviting mother and child in for tea. “I won’t try and stop you. I’m rather fascinated to see what little Libby is capable of. You know I have… certain theories.”
Leah’s heart was pounding. He was the last one of them that she’d trust. The very last. Still, she had to take the offered chance, even if it was no more than a cat momentarily lifting its paw off a mouse’s back.
She studied his face as if moonlight and Skill-light might reveal the truth of his intentions. And as Silyen met her eye for perhaps the very first time, Leah thought she glimpsed something. Was it curiosity? He wanted to see if Libby could open the gate. If she could, maybe he would let them both through. Purely for the satisfaction of seeing it—and just perhaps to spite his eldest brother.
“Thank you,” she said, in little more than a whisper. “Sapere aude?”
“?‘Dare to know’ indeed. If you dare, I will know.”
Silyen smiled. Leah knew better than to mistake it for compassion or kindness.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 6 – Good
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