Ms. James writes with the skill of someone who has been an author for decades
Gilded Cage is the first book in The Dark Gifts Trilogy. It has an intriguing premise, where the UK has been split into two, with a very rich and privileged minority ruling the country, this minority are quite archaic in nature and are known as Equals (or those with Skill). The rest of the population, those without Skill, live quite similarly to us, except that they are subjected to ten years of Slavedays which they have to do to give Equals the time to run the country. These Slavedays, whether you spend them in a slavetown; as a manufacturer or in a call centre, or alternatively working on one of the Equals family estates. Those that are Skilled are treated as untouchable, seen as celebrities or the one per cent. Those without Skill do not know much about the powers Equals possess, as it is rare to see public demonstrations.
Centred around the Hadley family’s decision to enter their Slavedays as a family. The Hadley’s are the parents, who are never really given individual personalities, their oldest Abigail who is described as very smart and has the opportunity to go to medical school to become a doctor, Luke who is just about to turn 16 and their youngest child Daisy who has just celebrated her tenth birthday. The Hadley’s decide to do this because of Abigail’s ingenuity as she has found them a placement at the stately home of Kyneston where they will be slaves of the Jardines who are the most powerful Skilled family in the UK. This is seen as a better option than being sent to Millmoor, one of the slavetowns, where those sent there spend their days doing long shifts with no health and safety, bad working conditions, food that just about allows you to function, a lot of air pollution and security staff that will give you a beating just because they don’t like the look of you.
On the day they leave for their Slavedays the Hadley’s learn a harsh lesson when Luke is taken from them and sent to Millmoor. The Hadley’s have no power to stop this and learn that as slaves they do not have the rights of a person, they are now the property of the state. The novel then moves between Luke’s life at Millmoor and the rest of his family’s time at Kyneston. Their stories couldn’t be more different. Luke away from his family, has to learn to stand on his own two feet and find an inner strength and fortitude to survive. Whilst his family keep their hopes up that they will be able to bring Luke back to them while getting to know the cage they inhabit.
Equals don’t seem to care about the populace they are meant to oversee. They see the unskilled as missing part of their souls. Initially, the Slavedays began so that the Skilled would have the time to run the country without having to worry about being overthrown like the example made of Equals in France, but in the ensuing centuries, the Skilled have become lazy. For all the power Equals have, they rely on slavery to do the most simple jobs and rarely use their own Skill to improve themselves or their country. The Skilled have become so good at keeping the status quo, that they have forgotten what they can do with their Skill. Just like in our own world there are different levels of richness, here there are different power levels of Skill and it is frowned upon to marry someone who is not Equal.
There are lots of different character perspectives woven throughout the story. When we are with Luke in Millmoor, we get to meet a lot of different people and see how a few acts of kindness and solidarity can become a movement. Luke’s story takes us to some very dark places and shows how people not in power can be co-opted and complicit in maintaining control and keeping people down. At Kyneston, we learn more about Abigail and Daisy’s roles in the lives of the Jardines. For the most part, we follow the youngest Jardine, the enigmatic Silyen who is the most Skilled of his family. Silyen yearns to be able to do more with his Skill and feels that people with Skill have forgotten what they can do with it. Silyen is looking to shake up the establishment. Gavar the oldest is being forged into his Father’s tool to carry on their traditions, to marry well and continue the family’s political goals. The middle brother Jenner is an anomaly as he has no Skill, but unlike other Skill-less people he is not expected to give up years of his life as a slave, he is tolerated, but still seen as an outsider, even to his own family.
A lot of history and background is given throughout the story and it interesting to know of Equals in the past. Although compellingly we are never told how or why people became Skilled. As well as how the Government now works and an overview of what has happened in the rest of the world. There are themes of determination and persistence running through the novel, that you do not need to conform to other people’s expectations, that you are more than just a cog in the system.
This novel has so many interesting characters in every part of the story. The things that Skill can do is awe-inspiring and terrifying, but it is how people with Skill apply it that is truly scary, how your personality and your will can be swept away as if it means nothing. The machinations happening throughout the Gilded Cage are cleverly thought out and the lead up to the denouement is shocking, although there were some character reveals that felt fairly obvious. The ending left me wondering what would happen next as the main characters have all come so far from the beginning of the book. There are lots of strands left open for the next novel and I can only see it becoming more breathtaking as things come both together and apart for the Hadley’s and the Jardines.
Michelle Herbert, 9/10
I received an ARC of Gilded Cage from NetGalley and I would like to thank Vic James and Del Rey Books.
Gilded Cage is set in a dystopian, totalitarian alternative United Kingdom where certain individuals are born with the power of Skill. This created world is a mix of Dickensian Britain (with slave towns) and modern Britain (with computer consoles and C-pop music). The Equals are the ruling aristocrat elite here as they are born with the magic of Skill, they are the celebrities and they run the nation. Everyone lacking Skill is controlled and for ten years of their lives have to work their 'Slave Days'. Essentially, ten years of their lives where they work for the state in terrible conditions, for no money and during these times they have no rights and aren't even seen as real people any longer. James has created a large amount of back history too for the Dark Gift's trilogy that is hauntingly similar to our own. One example being the members amongst the long history of the revered Equals composed family trees. Another being characters discussing revolutions (hauntingly alike the French and American) throughout the world and also talking about countries who are living now after overthrowing their Equal ruling elite.
We view this world whilst following the point of view perspectives of members of two families on different sides of the divide. A normal, average family containing three children and an aristocratic Equal family, also with three children, who are anything but average.
This action happens mainly in two places. The home of the Equal family at Kyneston which is surrounded by an invisible magic gate/wall that encompasses the family grounds and at the slave town called Millmoor where people work six days a week in awful conditions for no money. The destinies of members of the two families intertwine and the story progresses.
The main characters all seem very developed and intriguing. My favourites to read about were Equal "Young Master" Silyen who seems to be brimming with magical prowess, the normal bloke Luke who finds out a lot about himself during these pages and the kind-hearted Dr. Jackson. The majority of the Equals seem to have peculiar motives and are manipulative. The people without the power of the skill are just trying to live quietly and act inconspicuous. Kyneston is as elegant a mansion and estate as you are likely to read about in fiction whilst Millmoor is the opposite. That isn't to say that what happens in Kyneston is all rosy. Millmoor is grotesque and horrendous for individuals spending their slave days there. There is an underground faction there below the sights of the authorities, however; who reminded me a bit of The Reckoners in Sanderson's Steelheart.
I don't wish to say too much about the story, how characters feel about, and interact with others, or discuss the magic as they are most fascinating aspects of this engrossing and highly original debut outing from James. The end I found phenomenal and it was extremely upsetting. That being said, it sets up Tarnished City (Dark Gifts #2) expertly promising to highlight more places in this compelling alternative Britain. Although it is marketed as YA and can be enjoyed by a younger audience, I can say that if that puts you off picking this up then you are missing out on an extraordinarily good story by a gifted new author.
James Tivendale, 9.2/10
England is no longer the England that we are all familiar with. In this alternate England, everyone is by no means equal and all are not citizens with full rights. It is an England now ruled by a select few aristocratic families or “Equals” touched with a special magic called the skill. This magic can burn entire buildings to the ground, influence people’s thought and actions, and in some cases even kill. Those who wish to become citizens with full rights must serve the Equals as indentured servants or even worse, be shipped to a factory slave town called Millmoor. There they will serve as slaves for a full decade of their lives under horrendous living conditions and harsh supervision. The most prominent of these Equals are the Jardines. Their family was the first to impose the Slavedays Compact upon the citizenry hundreds of years prior. Consequently, they now hold a place of great prominence, prestige, and influence in the council government. Yet there are secrets buried within the musty library inside the Jardine estate which if uncovered, could change the course of England’s future and may potentially reveal the secrets behind what led to the heinous compact that now keeps all commoners under the boot of tyranny and oppression. There are those; however, who want the Slavedays to end and are working behind the scenes to force a vote within the council eliminating the barbaric compact forever. They, along with a small rebellious faction who have risen up within the factory slave town of Millmoor to fight for their freedom, may ultimately be the key to ending the scourge of the Equals once and for all.
Vic James is a new writer who has emerged on the scene with great fanfare. Ms. James completed her doctorate in the Vatican Secret Archives, which I found incredibly interesting. Gilded Cage is her first book, which makes what she has accomplished here all the more impressive. I have wanted to read and review Gilded Cage for quite some time as I kept hearing the comparisons to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I’m a huge fan of the Victorian-era magic theme and so I went on a quest to track down an ARC (the release date for Gilded Cage is scheduled for February of 2017) so that I could see for myself what the buzz was about. After reading Gilded Cage, I will say that the comparisons to Clarke are only valid when it comes to the splendid quality of the writing. For when I actually immersed myself in the story, it bore little resemblance to that 19th century time period and plot. The crux of the story of Gilded Cage takes place in a modern day England, albeit a significantly alternate modern day England. Yes, the feel of the writing and specific settings do strike one as Victorian in nature, but that is part of the brilliance of the book. You can’t really pin down a specific time, and so the reader is left to appreciate the story instead of focusing on when in history this is occurring. It lends a uniqueness and freshness to the story as well as a very good mystery. The aspect that really made this book work for me was that I was constantly kept guessing and wondering what was truly going on throughout the entire book. I knew there was something that the author wasn’t revealing and Ms. James would give a snippet here, and a clue there, which I thought worked beautifully. The archaic practice of the Slavedays is a brutal but intriguing premise and ultimately I wanted to find out how that came about and to what ends was this practice initiated. Ms. James writes with the skill of someone who has been an author for decades. I was blown away by how beautiful the prose was and that just lent more effectiveness to the story for me. I haven’t read a book like Gilded Cage in a long time. It disturbed me at times, moved me to moments of joy, made me angry, and also created a sense of wonder in my mind that only a skilled author can deliver.
In the end I was left emotionally spent and wanting another book to read immediately so that I can find out more about this amazing world that Vic James has envisioned. Extremely impressed is all I can really say. I recommend this to everyone regardless of what genre is your favorite. Even though it would be classified as Dystopian, the story is so well-written and compelling that any reader can appreciate and enjoy it. The good news is that Gilded Cage is just the first book of a planned multi-book series called The Dark Gifts. So there’s a lot more coming and I for one am happy to hear that. I really can’t wait to see where Vic James takes this series next. She’s an incredibly gifted author who should be making huge literary waves for years to come.
Nick Taraborrelli, 9.5/10
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