The synopsis 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 in. Gilded Cage takes place in contemporary Britain where the monarchy has been killed by magic-wielding (skilled) nobles. They form the Parliament of Equals, but they’re only equal to each other — everyone else must serve ten years of slavery at some point in their lives. Abi is prepared to sacrifice her dreams to keep her family together. She throws away her chance at medical school so her family can do their slavedays together, and hopefully come out of the decade physically and mentally intact. She gets them accepted to serve at Kyneston, home of the powerful Jardine family. But when their escort arrives they learn the Jardines have no use for her brother Luke, and he’s reassigned to the brutal slavetown Millmoor. In Millmoor, slaves are malnourished, overworked and constantly at risk of finding themselves at the wrong end of a security truncheon. But things are stirring. 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 purpose in this greater cause.
While the brutality of the slavedays is overt at Millmoor, it’s coated with a veneer at Kyneston.
Abi’s family is assigned work that correlates with their talents; they have a small house, and are generally left to their thankless work, which is better than being brutally targeted.
It seems Abi was correct in assuming estate work would be less damaging than slavetown factories. However, she gradually learns that working around Equals carries its own risk. The specifics of skillwork are shrouded in rumor,
so each discovery is revealed with fresh horror. With a single gesture, they can choke off a person’s breath, send them flying across the room, shatter windows, and even rip away memories.
While Luke’s story focuses on the Equal vs. commoner inequality, the accounts from Kyneston reveal just as much division among the nobility. Not even the Jardines are on the same page. Heir Gavar is brutish and ill suited to political machinations. Second son Jenner is good-hearted and inexplicably skilless, much to his father’s chagrin. And Silyen, who by birth order should be 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, and things felt stagnant until about the last 50 pages. But when this book hits its stride, it really hits it.
Threads from previously disjointed accounts weave into a breathtaking finale with murder, betrayal, a descent into darkness and an amazing depiction of earth-shattering skill. Now that the kinks have been worked out, I have high hopes that the sequel, Tarnished City, will continue in this same vein. Despite my overall positive response toward Gilded Cage, there are a few things that detract from the story. Abi’s instant infatuation with one of the noble sons is implausible. The most interesting character — Silyen — appears very little, though I predict he’ll receive more of the spotlight as his veiled plans come to fruition. The estate slavery also comes across as a little too shiny. Author Vic James incorporates feelings of dehumanization on Abi’s part, but for the most part her family is treated pretty well.
However, I think future books will portray the inhumanity of the slavedays more potently, as Abi’s eye-rolling naïveté is dispelled by the end of Gilded Cage, and her ignorance
is what largely drives the issue.
Despite these drawbacks, I’d still recommend Gilded Cage, since I think it has a lot of potential to grow into the strengths it exhibits toward the end.
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 French Revolution.
There are also several unusual character pairings that go beyond the expected romantic or hero/villain matches and intrigue me with how they might reveal true natures and motives.
While the “overthrow the establishment” setup is nothing new, there are surprising amounts of side threads and schemes brewing that make this 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 there are plenty of secrets simmering just below the surface. So give it a chance and hang on to the end, because I think you’ll find it’s worth it.
Hannah Ens is the communication specialist at the K- State Student Union.