I burn, not shine.
I did not expect to love this book, but god DAMN. Vic James has slain me. “Gilded Cage” — in defiance of its bland title and uninspiring cover — exceeded all my expectations. It’s one of those gems that reminds me of why I like YA lit so much in the first place.
The premise: In an alternate universe version of the modern-day UK, a “Skilled” (magical) ruling class presides over the un-Skilled, who are required to spend ten years of their lives as slaves. When the Hadley family decides to begin their slavedays, intending to spend those long years together, things go awry. Their teenage son, Luke, is assigned to the dreary and soul-crushing slave town of Millmoor, while his family goes to the luxurious Kyneston estate, tasked with serving the most powerful family in the country. But which is worse — open brutality, or beautifully adorned and concealed cruelty? Risking everything for the sake of struggle and resistance, or obedience in exchange for comfort?
All the elements of a typical YA dystopia are there — a revolution, a corrupt government, spunky teenagers, a dash of romance — but the execution is way above par.
1. Complex characters. We have a couple of brave, clever, good-hearted protagonists in Luke and Abi, and I loved them. Then we’ve got some truly terrifying villains. Their magical powers are explosive (sometimes literally) and intimidating enough, but then you add in their unflinching cruelty, plus their ability to screw with your mind, memories, and free will. And while some of them are flat-out irredeemable, some of them made the most complicated, fascinating characters, too. Especially Silyen. He’s horrible, but tons of fun to read.
What I liked is the moral nuance. There’s good and bad, yes. Then there’s some who are both or neither. There are characters who do good for the wrong reasons, and others who do bad for the right ones. People are not always who or what they appear to be. A premise that could’ve been flat and ineffective instead becomes rich, well-developed, and constantly surprising when it’s populated with characters who embody those same traits.
2. No punches are pulled, and heartstrings are torn, not tugged. Listen, if you’re going to go the slavery route, you’d better commit and you’d better not make light of the topic. Vic James pulls it off, not shying away from the ugliness of this theme — but the book never felt so heavy I wanted to put it down. There’s rebellion, hope, and friendship to balance the tone, not to mention an exciting and fast-paced plot. Slavery is part of the conflict and is treated with the gravity it needs, but it doesn’t overwhelm the spirit of the story, which is a YA fantasy/adventure, with everything that entails.
On a related note, none of the protagonists have it easy. They all suffer a great deal; their actions, even the most heroic ones, have serious and lasting consequences. But that’s the key to making me emotionally invested in the characters’ fates. In the last quarter of the book, I found myself gasping, putting a hand to my forehead like a Victorian woman in a too-tight corset, and making distraught faces at my screen (in public, in full view of other people, because I literally could not help myself).
Anyway. The point is: conflict and obstacles. This book has them in spades. Your favs will suffer, your heart will break… and it’s a wildly enjoyable ride.
3. Great pacing & use of multiple POVs. I’m normally put off by books that have frequent POV changes, especially if there’s more than, say, three POV characters. In this case, that decision on the author’s part was both justified and necessary. Each POV was distinct, equally entertaining as the others (which is hardly ever the case!), and revealed an essential part of the story that we would’ve had no way of knowing otherwise. Also, it allowed for some brilliant reveals and an excellent rhythm of suspense & action.
Other things I liked:
- Unlike other dystopias, this one makes references to international dynamics and governments that don’t function like the protag’s does. +5 world-building points for that.
- There are some intriguing revelations about how Skill works. I love a unique, cutthroat magical system.
- Painfully good use of foreshadowing.
- Amazing female characters.
- Lies, deception, and power games. All that fun stuff.
- There are some “oh my god” and “OH SHIT” moments. I kept thinking I’d guessed what would happen, and then something would come out of left field.
- Renie. Everything about Renie.
- Millmoor’s merry band of rebel geeks. The revolution is being carried out by hackers & computer science teachers.
- Gavar’s non-stop bad luck. May karma kick him in the ass forever and always until he dies, amen.
- Characters had believable emotions and complicated reactions to things. I’m thinking of a particular moment near the end, after a big revelation. Will say no more, but that reaction was done really well.
The Bad (or why it didn’t quite make 5 stars for me):
1. Diversity, or lack thereof. Someone correct me if I’m wrong — because I admit, I flew through this book and might have missed it — but if I remember correctly, there are hardly any characters who aren’t white. All the POV characters are white. In a book about slavery, that’s kind of a huge oversight. If you’re writing a book about oppression, but you fail to represent the groups who have most often been the victims of it, that’s pretty careless.
2. It was hard to suspend my disbelief and accept the idea of slavedays at first. This is something I just had to let go of, and luckily the plot is enjoyable enough that I was able to put it out of my mind.
3. I’m that one reviewer who always complains about the inevitable romance in YA novels. I need to talk about Abi/Jenner, though. Awful. So awful. On the positive side: no insta-love. Just insta-absurd-attraction. Insta-“Abi doesn’t mind that he’s her ‘owner,’ because he happens to be really handsome.”
The story was fascinating. But not even talk of ancient books, lost knowledge, and a magical king could displace the one thing her brain was clamoring to hear more about.
That “one thing” is Jenner, in case you’re wondering. Abi — whose defining character trait is her intelligence, or so we’re told — is being handed paradigm-shifting knowledge on a goddamn platter, and all she can do is moon over a boy who literally owns her.
SIGH. Okay. That didn’t impact my opinion of the book a whole lot, as this romantic subplot is definitely more of a slow burn, but I did have to get that off my chest.
TL;DR: This book is fun, well-written, filled with amazing characters, and completely engrossing. Hype it the hell up, fellow readers. It deserves the praise.
I received this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes used here are subject to change upon publication. This review can also be found on my goodreads.