TITLE: Gilded Cage (Dark Gifts #1)
AUTHOR: Vic James
GENRE: Fantasy | Young Adult
PUBLISHED: February 14, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
It may come as a surprise to some that I have read and am now reviewing Gilded Cage, given that I have not been shy about my dislike of young adult fiction post-The Hunger Games trilogy (and even sometime before that). I was, however, quite pleasantly surprised by this novel. It may be because of my low expectations going into it, but it turns out to be mostly inoffensive to my sensibilities, though I do have a few quibbles here and there.
Gilded Cage is the first book in Vic James’ Dark Gifts trilogy. It is set in an alternate version of England, which is divided between the Equals - an aristocrat class who can wield magic (called “Skill” in the novel) - and the commoners. All commoners are required to serve what are called “slavedays”: ten years of their lives when they are, quite literally, slaves who work for the benefit of their Skilled overlords. Commoners may choose when they start their slavedays, but whether they do it early or late in their lives, they must all serve them one way or another. The Skilled, by their own decree, are excluded from this practice.
The novel begins when the Hadley family start their slavedays together. They are bound for the grand estate of the Parva-Jardine family - the First Family of England. As far as siblings Abigail and Luke are concerned, they will be able to serve a relatively easy ten years - especially since there are other, worse destinations they could wind up at, like the industrial slave town called Millmoor. But when things go horrifically wrong and Luke is sent to Millmoor instead of to the Parva-Jardine estate with the rest of his family, both he and Abigail have to find a way to survive their altered circumstances - and along the way, find out that the world as they know it is crueler and more unjust than either of them ever imagined.
When I first started reading this I went in with a certain set of preconceived notions, most of them negative. I was fully prepared to be disappointed, because I assumed that I would get yet another, tedious and irritating iteration of White People Love Triangles at the End of the World, and the far more important thematic concerns would fall to the wayside. I am quite happy to say that is not the case with this book. Themes of injustice, inequality, and revolution are woven throughout this story, though they are most prominent in Luke’s storyline. Take, for example, this conversation between Luke and Jackson, a doctor at Millmoor:
'I’ve not done much. Nothing that anyone else wouldn’t do.’
‘That’s not quite true, I’m afraid,’ said Jackson. ‘There aren’t many that see this place for what it truly is. Even fewer who realize that the slavedays aren’t an inevitable part of normal life, but a brutal violation of freedom and dignity, perpetuated by the Equals.’
Though there are times when the introduction and explication of these themes sometimes feels a little heavy-handed (indeed, the previous excerpt is one of those moments), the fact remains that they are front-and-centre in this novel - something I feel is important in a YA novel, recent examples of which have had a terrible tendency to shove important themes aside in favour of whatever romantic polygon happens to be ongoing in the plot. Other readers have actually complained about how the book is so “political”, but I welcome the political nature of this novel. While many YA books claim to highlight these vital themes, not all of them actually use them as anything more than plot elements to support a romance.
It must be noted, however, that I am speaking quite optimistically regarding Gilded Cage’s thematic potential. It is only the first book in a trilogy, after all, so there is still time for the series to completely ruin my expectations and have this whole story devolve into yet another tawdry mess of the kind I have seen many times elsewhere. But I choose to remain optimistic on this matter, and so cross my fingers in the hopes that the sequels do not let me down.
Unfortunately, other aspects of this novel do not inspire the same optimism. Take, for instance, the character development. While a part of me attributes the lack of any significant development to the fact that this is just the first book of a trilogy, and therefore it is highly likely that the characters will do most of their growing in the latter two books, I still wish that the characters had been a mite more interesting than they actually are - especially Luke and Abigail. They strike me as rather bland and cookie-cutter at the moment, filling in for specific roles in the novel’s overall plot instead of moving that plot themselves. They have a great deal of potential, but at the moment I have a rather hard time seeing that potential.
Fortunately, not all the characters are as bland as the two eldest Hadley siblings. There is Silyen Jardine, who fascinates me because he is possibly the most amoral character in the entire novel, and such amorality is rare even in non-YA novels. I find it mildly annoying, however, that he is constantly described as “creepy” by the other characters; I suppose this is a result of the fact that he is supposedly the most powerful Skilled person in the entire series, but the constant repetition does grate on my nerves, because he does not strike me as creepy so much as complicated. I hope that complicated nature will become something more interesting later on - something along the lines of “complex”, because Silyen certainly has the potential for that as well, and it would be nice to read a character in a YA novel whose amorality is portrayed with subtlety instead of as the wearisome and shallow “YOLO” philosophy masquerading in a more sophisticated shell.
Another character I find interesting is Bouda Matravers. There has been a clamour for more complex female villains, and I think that Bouda could quite easily fill in that role. She is a woman in a man’s world, but has decided that she will not be subject to their rules any longer, and has determined to take the path that will lead her to the highest pinnacle of power - because she knows she deserves it. Such determination is admirable, and a part of me that is not quite as moral as it ought to be applauds her willingness to use somewhat more underhanded means to get what she wants, but I also find her politics and points-of-view thoroughly repellent. I like that I cannot decide if I like her or hate her, and such characters tend to be few in far between even in non-YA fiction. I hope that Bouda continues to grow more complex as the series goes along because it would be a terrible waste of a potentially excellent character if she does not.
Perhaps one reason why the characters are not as developed as they could be is because the book has so many of them narrating their own individual slice of the overall plot. Now, jumping from one character to another across different chapters can be a useful, even enjoyable narrative technique, allowing the author to incorporate different plots instead of just focusing on one or two or even three, but I think Gilded Cage has one too many narrative voices. It also does not help that some characters narrate only one chapter in the entire novel, making what might otherwise be a relatively pleasant chorus of voices into something more akin to a narrative cacophony.
Overall, Gilded Cage is a pleasant surprise: a book that does not fall into most of the expectations I’ve held regarding YA fiction. Of course, only time will tell if this positive trend will continue; the novel is, after all, only the first in a trilogy, which means there is still plenty of time for it to fall apart and fail completely. I hope, however, that does not happen, because it would be a truly great waste of a potentially great story if that were to happen.