[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my ability) a spoiler-free review.]
In the world of Vic James’s Gilded Cage, the first installment of the Dark Gifts series, the world is divided into Equals and Unequals: those with mysterious skills and powers and those without. In this world, history has been rewritten and it is the Equals who hold all the power, control the government, and require the tradition of Unequals’ to slavedays — ten years of labor and servitude without rights or legal identity — to keep it all running. When Abi manufactures that her family’s slavedays be carried out at the manor house of the most influential and most powerful Equal family, she has no idea what she’s signed up for.
Questions of loyalty, power, humanity, family, rebellion, romance, freedom, politics, and humane and kind treatment abound in a variety of settings, including an extravagant, sprawling Equal estate and the worst, most desolate Unequal slavetown. The Unequal family, the Holdens, are our eyes on failed bureaucracy and both the ill and the caring treatment of slaves while their interactions with the preeminent and aristocratic Jardine family of Equals problematize trust and safety and power struggles. A snake waiting to strike at every turn, James’s publishing debut is unique, thrilling, and an edge-of-your-seat kind of chase for truth and humanity in an eerily familiar fantasy world.
The plot and narrative components of Gilded Cage are fascinatingly new and intriguing. James’s work on building a world of Equals and Unequals, free and slave, is detailed and thorough, even going so far as to invent alternate histories for Britain, the United States (I’m sorry, the Union States and the Confederate States), France, China and others. Significantly, in dealing with the touchy subject of slavery, James is sure to define that the social hierarchy is established by nothing more than one’s skill and one’s family’s skill before. There are several instances in which characters and descriptions note that there are Equals and Unequals of color and its merely their skillful abilities — or lack thereof — that afford them different treatment. I still have a lot of questions, and would urge James to go all the way in fleshing out more of this world in upcoming sequels.
Gilded Cage, via a series of randomly shifting points of view, tells the story from the perspectives of two Unequal characters — the eldest Holden siblings, Abi and her younger brother Luke — and two Equal characters — the eldest and youngest Jardine brothers, Gavar and Silyen — with a smattering of other perspectives in between. This technique allows us inside information on both sides of the divide between the Equals and Unequals, though it tends toward a habit of being overly convenient. That is, we tend to know more as readers than any of the characters do while at times significant information is provided to us just in the nick of time.
Also, because I am a little confused, we are cursorily introduced to two settings (not to mention several characters) in this series opener that we may not see again in follow-up plots. First is the slavetown of Millmoor, the horror grounds of industrial production gone horribly wrong. Luke is rejected from joining his family at the Jardine’s estate and is shipped off to Millmoor without further notice, where he not only is subjected to rigorous physical and emotional labor but also moral and ethical challenges. Later in the text, a certain change in circumstances almost seems to belittle Luke’s hardening experiences and both Luke and I were left unsure how to proceed. Second is the Equal family estate, Kyneston, that is part Downton Abbey rerun and part eerie historical relic teeming with power and preeminence. In an effort not to give too much away, I’ll just say: I was surprised by the ending and Kyneston’s part in it.
As a young adult fantasy debut, James’s Gilded Cage is both fascinating and gripping, troubling and entrancing. I reached the last page far before I was ready, and I’ll be refreshing James’s Goodreads page until we have an official release for the sequel Tarnished City. This story not only tells us of an alternate world of Equal and Unequal, free and slave, skilled and unskilled, but it enfolds us directly in the action, pitfalls, and uneasy alliances of its characters and narrative. Though the alternating points of view left me feeling that I hadn’t quite met each of the characters to their full potential, each character promises development — or, in the case of Silyen, increased untrustworthy creepiness — and challenges to the rules of this way of life. In Gilded Cage, enter a world in which hope is a pair of glasses or three garishly painted letters, love must be hidden or rejected, freedom is hard won, and power and humanity are ever shifting, ever waxing and waning.
Vic James’s Gilded Cage was released February 14, 2017, with Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine.