Gilded Cage by Vic James
Publication Date: February 14th, 2017
Publisher: Del Rey Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House
In an alternate England, an elite few called the Equals hold control over the rest through the use of a highly guarded magical power. Commoners, those without magic, must sacrifice ten years of their lives to the Equals. Thus is societal order maintained. Yet, three individuals’ destinies will converge to change the world as they know it: a girl who desires love and knowledge, a boy who dreams of revolution, and an aristocrat who has the power to remake the world into whatever he desires.
Luke Hadley cannot wait to finish his exams and move on with his life. He notices that he seems to be unable to shake this sense of impending bad news, but just chalks it up to anxiety over his school exams. Sadly, that’s when the news hits. The family has been ordered by the government to begin their Slavedays, a ten year “sentence” that every Commoner must endure, or fear use of force. Abi, Luke’s older sister, connives a plan to find a position for everyone in her family by working for the most prestigious family of The Equals, the Jardine family. Abi, confident that she has secured a safe, stable Slaveday assignment for her family, soon realizes that this is not to be so; the Jardines don’t need Luke, and his position is dismissed, leaving Luke with no choice but to head to Millmoor, the infamous workhouses that are known for destroying those inside. The Hadleys are distraught, but choices must be made, and Luke decides to endure this so that his sisters and mother and father might have a safe ten years.
As the Hadleys head to the Jardine estate, and Luke to Millmore, Gilded Cage cuts to the Jardine family. We immediately understand that deep secrets are being hidden within this family’s estate walls; death, extreme power, and frustration lace the hallways of their estate. Gavar is the tempered, brooding eldest son of the wealthy family. He has a daughter named Libby, and the presence of Libby’s mom is an enigma for most of the novel. Jenner is the middle son, and somehow he has found himself Skill-less (has no magical abilities). This is perhaps the most mysterious aspect of the family, and raised a few questions in me. If he has no magic, shouldn’t he be a Commoner and subjected to Slavedays? If James attempted to answer this, I missed it. But Jenner is the most compassionate and empathetic of the three brothers; he is left to manage the work that the Hadleys will be performing during their ten years. Last but not least is Silyen, an equally enigmatic character who’s power is clearly unlimited and more powerful than anyone else in his family. I seriously enjoyed reading Silyen’s chapters, as they grew more and more dark, mysterious, and powerful. We never know what he’s really up to, or if he’s a hero or antagonist, and I loved this. Even at the end, you’re left contemplating whether his actions are just or selfish. I loved the unreliability of his character.
While I won’t get into too much of the politics of this book in this post, I was honestly surprised that all of the Parliamentary scenes and political intrigue didn’t turn me off. James expertly positions each politician, carefully revealing their power and vulnerabilities, their goals and roadblocks. At first, I wasn’t sure how it all fit into the bigger plot, but as you keep reading and the climax takes place during the final voting day towards the end, it all fit brilliantly into place. Words cannot describe the emotional roller coaster that is the last quarter of the novel. All of the political subterfuge has come to a head, Silyen’s mysterious reveal is dropped, and everyone, including the reader, is left to pick up the pieces. It was expertly done.
The last aspect that I’ll discuss was the journey that Luke Hadley’s character endured. Since he arrived at Millmoor, he was overcome with a sense of depression and had honestly given up on living a normal life. But as he settles into his back-breaking routine, a few key characters are dropped into his path that change everything. One is a ten-year old girl who seems too savvy for someone of her age, a mysterious yet empathetic doctor that is trying to incite revolution, and other revolutionaries who show Luke that he is not as powerless as he previously believed. Luke’s transformation throughout the novel was intense; we see him give up, then embrace his true power as a human individual, yet fall prey to the impossible power of the Equals. His character, while inspiring, also makes the reader question whether we have any power at all compared to the insanely wealthy elite. It was extremely compelling.
I used to read books like this, books that feature an alternative universe that’s based in our real world, and take comfort in the fact that it wasn’t real. That while the world was similar to the one I knew, I could close the book and settle back into reality. What freaked me out the most is how Gilded Cage and its portrayal of an oligarchy, or rule by the wealthy elite, censorship, and societal inequality hit so close to home. Overall, this novel is unbelievable. The writing is superb, the plot is deep and absorbing, and the ending leaves you absolutely shattered, in the best of ways! I cannot wait for the rest of the series!