Friday 10 February 2017

Gilded Cage, Vic James

An empty birdcage with the door shut. A tulip in its prime, upright in the vase but drab and gray, as if a week dead. A sheet ruled with musical staves but without notes. A violin with no strings.

Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England's grandest estate lies a power that could break the world. 
* * *
3 / 5

Gilded Cage was a fun read, or as fun as a book about slavery and oppression can be. The writing was plain and the concept behind it was simple: there are the Equals, the nobility with magic-based powers called the Skill, and then there is everyone else. Normal people are second-class citizens who must serve their "slavedays", ten years of labour either in service to a house of Equals or in a slavetown, in order to gain their full rights. This all made it reasonably easy to follow; Gilded Cage is built on a decent idea executed in a satisfactory fashion. I devoured it in three days.

As I have said, the concept was all quite interesting. It primarily focuses on a family: Luke who is sent to Millmoor, a slavetown, and his siblings Abigail and Daisy who go to Kyneston estate alongside their parents to serve under the most powerful family in England, the Jardines. The Lord Jardine is frankly revolting and James conveys this very well. He has three sons: Gavar the heir who treats slaves and women like possessions is equally so, but is also rather interesting in his burning hatred of his father; Jenner, the middle son, Skill-less and kinder than his brothers; Silyen, politically ambitious and slippery as a snake. They are all decent characters with their own interesting motivations.

The whole point about birthrights, Gavar thought resentfully, and not for the first time, was that they came to you automatically. You didn't have to do anything, except be who you were.

My favourite bits of the novel were the political scenes: I love deception and deviousness. I liked Bouda Matravers angling for power in a male-dominated game, I enjoyed the sister who wasn't all that she seemed. The setting and history were also well-fleshed out; a problem I have encountered with a number of books lately, which Gilded Cage did not suffer from, was a lack of sufficient world building and explanation. Gilded Cage never info-dumped but neither was I ever confused.

"It's an ability, origin unknown, manifesting in a very small fraction of the population and passed down through our bloodlines. Some talents are universal, such as restoration. Others, such as alteration, persuasion, perception, and infliction, manifest in differing degrees from person to person."

What prevents Gilded Cage from obtaining a higher rating, in my opinion, is that its focus is too large and its length too small. The novel focuses on Luke and his revolution at Millmoor, on Abi and her family at Kyneston, on Bouda Matravers and her political ambitions, on Gavar Jardine and his relationships with his father, brothers, and daughter, and on Silyen Jardine and his sneaky plots. The result is that none of these characters and their respective plots and arcs get enough pagetime. None of them are fully explored as they deserved - and Vic James has crafted several wonderful characters that don't rise to their full potential. If you want to write a book with multitudinous plotlines and focuses, then you have to write a hefty tome like A Game of Thrones. Not a slim volume like Gilded Cage.

In the centuries since the Great Demonstration, no woman had ever sat there. Bouda intended to be the first.

I wanted to know all about the dynamics in Luke's group at Millmoor. I wanted to see more of Renie and the others, all the details of their missions and heists being pulled off. Or Bouda shifting her way up the political ladder, making distasteful deals and being all-round crafty. A novel focused on Silyen and Bouda as twin perspectives would have made a wonderful version of Gilded Cage with an emphasis on political intrigue. But alas. Gilded Cage wanders between being about the perils of revolution and its cost of personal sacrifice (Luke reminds me of Katniss Everdeen - someone caught up in the thrill of the revolution, willing to sacrifice themselves, but only just realising that what is so much harder is to ask and to watch as other people sacrifice their lives for your cause), between being a novel about family and familial love, and a novel about politics and the climb to power. They are all lovely ideas that are sketched out in Gilded Cage; if it had chosen and focused on one of these, it would have been far more compelling.

I was also not a fan of the romance. At one point I thought James was going to make a nicely illustrated point about how even if your oppressor and owner is kind, there cannot possibly be an equal relationship. No matter how kind a man is, he is still a Jardine and complicit in his family's crimes. Instead James writes a barely explored master/slave dynamic. Not really my thing at all. The good bit is it isn't particularly prominent.

"Well, that was unexpected." The Equal smiled. "I love it when people aren't who they seem. It makes life so much more exciting, don't you think?"

And Silyen. What an un-excavated goldmine! Silyen in the novel was fascinating and sly. But he simply did not get enough page time. Silyen is the youngest of the Jardine brothers, powerful in the Skill and slippery as an eel. He's the kind of character that readers love: smooth-talking, powerful, weaving a dozen plots at a time. You know the kind - he's the Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows) of Gilden Cage and he is criminally un-utilised. I'm hoping for a lot more Silyen in the next book, alongside more of the political weaving and double-crossing that I loved about Gilded Cage.

She shouldn't have expected any better from Silyen Jardine, with his weird, bright friendliness and his utter lack of scruples

I did love that the book was set in England. There's the whole parallels with British aristocracy to utilise, and James made nice use of our parliament system and the House of Lords/Peers. I'm going to presume that Vic James is English because there was a couple of nice references to British culture - Angel being named after the Angel in the North, and Gavar choosing to study Land Economy at university. I found that hilarious!

Bouda had been the star Law student of their year at Oxford. It was one of the reasons Gavar had opted to study Land Economy instead - although "study" was perhaps an overstatement

Land Economy has a reputation for being something taken by athletic students hoping to coast through academically (whether this is actually true or not I have no idea). Although I don't believe Land Economy can be studied at Oxford, only Cambridge.

The ending was also fantastic. The last 15% of the book is what I wish all of it had been: fast-paced, emotion inducing, full of plot twists. Abi finally grew her backbone. Luke faced the consequences of revolution. Silyen is sneaky. James finished the book with a bang that has left me anticipating the sequel. The ending, the characters, and the hope that James will write a more focused sequel, alongside the fact that it was genuinely fun to read, means this book is a solid 3/5 stars.

My thanks to Netgalley and the author for an ARC copy of Gilded Cage.

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