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Gilded Cage by Vic James

BOTTOM LINE: I am excited to see what the rest of the series has in store.

Genre: Fantasy
Publication Date: 14 February 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“A darkly fantastical debut set in a modern England where magically gifted aristocrats rule, and commoners are doomed to serve—for readers of Victoria Aveyard and Susanna Clarke.

NOT ALL ARE FREE.
NOT ALL ARE EQUAL.
NOT ALL WILL BE SAVED.

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.

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of their noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty—but will her heart pay the price?

A boy dreams of revolution.

Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.

And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?”

My Thoughts: A good series opener introduces a strange, new world with fascinating characters and an exciting plot. It answers just enough questions to assuage readers while leaving the rest for future novels. It makes you care about the characters and the world so that you want to come back to them and it again and again. Thankfully, Vic James‘ debut novel does just that.

Gilded Cage pretty much has it all. There is magic and a gross difference between the haves and the have-nots. There is a growing awareness of the unfairness of it all and a burgeoning movement to do something about it. There are secrets and power struggles. There is love, although not in the form one expects. There are random acts of kindness, acts of rebellion, acts of stupidity, and acts of heroism. There is a unique backstory that is easy to understand and a current society that is all too familiar. There are plenty of questions and few answers. There is an ending that leaves you wanting more of everything.

One of the unique aspects of the story is that it is set in present-day England. With a few tweaks to history and current geopolitical borders, the England of the Hadleys is essentially the same as anything you will find today. Establishing the story in such a familiar environment eases some of the natural tension that arises when readers do not understand the setting. Yet, like any good fantasy story, not everything is the same. Ms. James does an excellent job explaining the origins of the differences, thereby removing the setting as an obstacle to understanding the story.

That being said, there are enough differences to let you know that the world of the Hadleys is not today’s England. One of the most shocking examples, outside of the Equals’ Skill (a.k.a. magical powers), is the fact that every non-Equal must serve ten years as a slave. When you serve these years is at an individual’s discretion but there are age caps at both ends of the spectrum to force the issue. There have been plenty of stories in which the have-nots have little to no rights and are little more than slaves. Where Gilded Cage differs is the fact that the non-Equals know the difference between the life they have and the life they will as a slave and knowingly have to give up all of the creature comforts as well as their rights upon starting their years. The long-ago law creating the slave years is a subtle form of sadism that makes those Equals who continue to support it that much more despicable.

Gilded Cage has a decent number of answers for an opening novel, but there are plenty of questions that remain. Many of these questions revolve around the Skill the Equals yield. They also swirl around the political backstabbing and power grabbing.  The characters’ motivations remain infuriatingly nebulous, so much so that readers finish the story feeling just as used as Luke and Abi Hadley and just as clueless. Moreover, one gets the impression that the growing support for the abolition of Slave Days is not the end goal of the series. It is all too blurry and too unformed a hypothesis to concretely establish, and it may all be a red herring, but there are just one too many unknowns regarding the actions of certain Equals. One thing is for certain though; it promises to be a stellar sequel.

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