A Surprisingly Pleasant Reading Experience – A Review of Gilded Cage by Vic James

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I sometimes find it difficult to manage expectations for the books I read. I attribute this partly to something my professors at university told me: that writers should always write with the best possible reader in mind. By this, they were suggesting that any writer must always assume that the reader that picks up his or her book will be of the sharp, erudite sort who is also generally intolerant of lapses in writing quality. Writers must always turn out the best work they possibly can, so my professors insisted, because they can never know who will read their work, and so they must always imagine that that imaginary reader will be smart enough to notice all the potential weak points in their writing and call them out on it.

As a reader, therefore, the above thought process means that I always assume any book I read will be the best possible job a writer can do – that said writer is writing with the best possible reader in mind. While I am not presumptuous enough to imagine that I am that idealised reader, I do like to think that, in pursuit of such writing excellence, the writer has at least attempted to do as good a job as he or she possibly can.

Sadly, that’s not always the case – especially when it comes to young adult fiction. As I have said elsewhere, whatever love and general goodwill I used to have for YA has since evaporated in the wake of developments in the genre post-The Hunger Games Trilogy, or indeed even before that. Nowadays, it seems like the YA shelves at my local bookstore are replete with variations of the White People Love Triangles at the End of the World playbook, and I am beyond sick to death of it all. As a result, I have not really tried to read anything in the genre, because my expectations have been so thoroughly polluted by my previous, extremely unsatisfactory experiences.

It may come as a surprise, therefore, that I have read and am now reviewing Gilded Cage by Vic James. To be honest, I would have not picked up the book at all were it not for the fact that it was included in the list of books for the little book club a friend and I have going. During our discussion of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning (an amazing book, by the by), we both expressed a certain degree of scepticism regarding the potential quality of James’ book based on its blurb on Goodreads. “A girl thirsts for love and knowledge”? That line alone made me roll my eyes so hard I could have won gold medal in the Olympics, had the Olympics made eye-rolling a competitive sport worthy of its roster.

But my friend and I decided to give it a chance. It was on the list, after all, and if it turned out to be terrible we could always soothe ourselves by ranting about it and then proceeding to greater, better books (next in line is The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley, whose work is of tried-and-true quality and is unlikely to disappoint). As a result, I went into it with relatively low expectations – quite unlike the usually high ones I have for most of the other books I read.

I was, however, quite pleasantly surprised by Gilded Cage. It may be because of my low expectations, but it turned 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.

As I mentioned earlier, 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 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 for my part welcome the political nature of this novel. While many YA books claim to highlight those 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 am choosing to remain optimistic on this matter, and so am crossing my fingers in the hopes that the sequels do not let me down.

There are, however, other aspects of this novel that do not inspire the same optimism in me. 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 Hadley. 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 whom 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 of a read: a book that did not fall into most of the expectations I’ve held regarding YA fiction for some time now. Of course, only time will tell if this trend will continue; the novel is, after all, only the first novel 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.

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