First published onFantasy Faction
Gilded Cage began life as a Wattpad success and it’s easy to see why. Sitting halfway between the YA and adult markets, James’ story has a wide appeal and deals with popular themes. While the dystopian ‘us and them’ set-up is familiar, the world of Gilded Cage is far more comprehensively realised than many of its contemporaries’. James achieves this by sharing the narrative between no fewer than seven POV characters (though two have only one chapter each). While so many POVs can prove distracting in less well-crafted novels, Gilded Cage is tightly woven, allowing James’ multiple narrators to construct an expansive picture of future England.
In a modern Britain, everyone must endure ten years of slavery for a magically-skilled aristocracy. Here, a teenage boy dreams of rebellion. His sister thirsts for knowledge and will find love. And a dangerous young aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.
England is ruled by those who call themselves Equals – an aristocracy possessed of Skill, which is a magical ability that manifests in different ways for different people. The origins of Skill aren’t made entirely clear, but Equal rule dates back to the seventeenth century, when Cadmus Parva-Jardine built the House of Light (Equal Parliament) and established England as a republic. We learn more about the man and his secrets later on and it’s one of the novel’s strengths that his murky history shapes present day characters and events. Though the action takes place in England, multiple references to the wider world dispel the sense of microcosm that can sometimes characterise dystopias.
It’s also refreshing to see a dystopian story that allows the haves as much voice as the have nots. James reminds us that we’re all products of our environment. Those acts the unSkilled commoners perceive as evil are simply the reality of life for Equals. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the character of Bouda, a young aristocratic woman with serious ambitions. Equal rule is rather patriarchal and Bouda intends to be the first ever female Chancellor. It’s a goal that readers will find compelling and – despite Bouda’s attitude to commoners – I found myself rooting for her.
The Parva-Jardines are the ruling family and it’s in their ancestral home Kyneston that much of the action unfolds. Kyneston is a vast, glass-winged manor, a symbol of Equal power, home to the overbearing Lord Whittam, his wife and three sons: Gavar, the Heir, Jenner, the unSkilled aberration, and enigmatic Silyen, whose dark ambitions outstrip even Bouda’s in cunning and magnitude.
Into this poisonous environment come the Hadley family. Commoners have one right over their Slavedays – they can choose when to do them. The majority of people are relegated to the horror of slavetowns, where they’re put to work in foundries and factories, but Abi, the eldest Hadley child, believes she’s won her family the best possible result – slavedays at Kyneston. Unfortunately, her brother Luke is told he cannot go with them and is shipped to Millmoor, the most notorious slavetown of all.
Abi and Luke provide us with two separate pictures of commoner life and Equal rule. Luke becomes involved with an abolitionist movement inside Millmoor, while Abi learns more about the Equals and the power games that define their rule. The siblings’ stories eventually dovetail in a clever finale, which reveals how deep the debates for and against abolition run.
Some Equals wish to abolish the slavedays because they’re the supreme act of oppression. But not Silyen Jardine. Arguably the most complex character in Gilded Cage, Silyen is the first to take up the standard of abolition. He is not, however, motivated by compassion, rather by the belief that the Equals have grown lazy in the exercise of power. Some barely use their Skill, a fact that Silyen finds contemptible. It seems to me that Silyen believes the slavedays in some way protect the commoners from the Equals, and abolition would strip that protection away, allowing them to be directly controlled. It’s a dark aim and one that makes quiet Silyen the most dangerous of all the Equals…but also the most fascinating.
I loved everything about this book. The plots, the machinations, the clues James leaves the reader. If I had any grumble at all, it would be that some POVs are weaker than others, a result of having so many. Abi is probably the least interesting character and her romance seemed a bit inevitable. Part of the problem is that she’s surrounded by such strong characters – they make her seem less compelling by comparison. I wonder, however, whether this feeling is fuelled by months of reading about the ‘extraordinary ordinary’, i.e. the commoner protagonist with hidden potential. (Mare from Aveyard’s Red Queen springs to mind). In which case, it’s good that Abi’s qualities – her cleverness, decency, naivety – are remarkable in their ordinariness.
Gilded Cage offers a fresh take on a popular genre. James’ world is as compelling as her prose and as cleverly constructed. Told by a diverse cast of characters from various echelons of society, Gilded Cage is an unputdownable story, which looks at themes of oppression and modern day slavery. It’s truly a gem among dystopian fiction, making Vic James a writer to watch. I can’t wait for the next book.