I was going through the upcoming releases when I saw that one in particular, Gilded Cage by Vic James, was getting a lot of buzz. After taking an initial look at it, I acquired an ARC from netgalley and decided that it was likely going to be a book I was supposed to enjoy more than I did. You know the type, something that is hyped as the next Game of Throne or Harry Potter, but never lives up to the sell. So I tossed my copy on my to-be-read pile and forgot about it for a month. I eventually decided I could use a break from fantasy with some historical fiction and maybe see if Gilded Cage might be ok, and then I promptly had to eat my words and feelings because it is pretty damn good.
I say it is a historical fiction, but I realized near the end that it is more akin to an urban fantasy (look a lot of people were on horses and I jumped to conclusions about time periods, it is the present. My track record with this book is embarrassing). The story is set in a present day London, but with a radically different world than ours. In the world of Gilded Cage, there are two groups of people; the skilled (called equals) and everyone else. The skilled are those who can perform magic, and it sets them above their fellow man. The skilled are treated differently in every society (some that we hear snippets of, such as Americans who hunted their into extinction) but in London they formed an aristocracy that rules over the land. In England, in order to keep the economy afloat, each unskilled must submit to ten years of slavery at the time of their choosing. Some do it young, some do it old, but they all do it. The slavery can take the form of anything from back breaking manual labor in the textile industry to being the butler or personal slave of a skilled. But no matter what the experience is horrible and usually changes the person for the worst. Our protagonists are two families, one skilled and one unskilled. The skilled family is one of the leading aristocratic families, with an older son who is a brute, a sweet middle son who is unskilled, and a strange youngest son Silyen who is quiet and eerie but is unprecedentedly skilled at… well, skill. The second family is a group just entering their slave days, some in a back breaking shanty town and some at the gilded palace of the Skilled. The plot follows several POVs in each family and what a plot it is.
The prologue of the book left me a little disappointed and made me think that the story was going to be a melodramatic sob story, but once again I misjudged it. Despite the upsetting topic of slavery, Vic James does a great job exploring the horrors of the subject without being too over the top. In addition, the skilled families are painted with a variety of personalities and shades of grey that make it both easy to hate some and hard to hate others. The book’s primary strength definitely resides in its characters, both main and support. Almost every character is well fleshed out and interesting, but for now I will focus on the three main POVs. Silyen, as mentioned before, is the youngest and most skilled of one of families. He is unhappy with the status quo of the world and dislikes that skilled live lives of luxury while the unskilled do labor – but not for the reason you would expect. See Silyen isn’t a romantic revolutionary – he is obsessed with the skill and feels that the equal’s slavelord status has keep skill from improving. Abi is the oldest child of the unskilled family and is helping protect her family in a skilled household and dig up secrets on their reclusive kind. Finally, Luke is the middle child of the unskilled family and has been shipped off to the machine shops in the worst part of the country. There he joins a revolution fighting against the equals. All their stories are fun, exciting, and filled with twists and intrigue. I really enjoyed the plot and am excited for more.
The only major cons in the book were that the ending felt a bit abrupt and that some of the details of the world could be fleshed out a bit more. The ending is a huge cliffhanger and it left me feeling like I didn’t quite get a full book. However, it certainly left me wanting more and it isn’t going to stop me from picking up the sequel as soon as possible. In addition, I felt it hard to understand the time period and state of the world occasionally and I wish that the same level of attention given to building out the cast was spent on their surroundings.
Other than these minor nit pickings, the Gilded Cage delivered a much better story than i could have imagined and is well on its way to earning a spot on my best of 2017, and it is only February. Vic James has created a fascinating new entry into the fantasy genre that is hard to classify, other than as good. The Quill to Live definitely recommends you learn from my mistake and pick up and read Gilded Cage with little delay.