Gilded Cage by Vic James. ★★★1/2
Gilded Cage is a compulsively readable YA fantasy dystopia. I’ll admit, I was wary of picking it up. I haven’t had the best experiences with the YA dystopian genre, and at this point it feels like there’s a certain sameness to most of the books. But when Imyril over at x + 1 gave it a positive review, I reconsidered. As it turns out, I am glad I did.
Gilded Cage takes place in an alternate version of England where the ruling segment of the population, the Equals, posses immense magical skill. The vast majority of the population are commoners, who are utterly without magic or power. They have to give up ten years of their lives to serve as slaves for the Equals, a modern update on medieval fiefdom. Abi and Luke Hadley are commoners, and they’re about to begin their slave years. But due to Abi’s genius and hard work, she’s gotten their family a place at the Jardine estate instead of the sweatshops of the slave town. But as the day arrives, something goes wrong and Luke instead finds himself being sent to Millmoor, the aforementioned slave town. There he finds something entirely unexpected: revolution. Meanwhile, his sister Abi begins to wonder if she’s made the wrong choice by having the family serve the Jardines, for she soon finds that they can be heinously cruel in their power.
My enjoyment of Gilded Cage comes down to one reason above all else: the pacing. This book practically flew by. I read it in less than twenty four hours on a class day! Seriously, Gilded Cage was amazingly addictive. I did see a plot twist coming from a mile away, but that never impacted my enjoyment. A fast pace has always been the key asset of the YA dystopian genre, and Gilded Cage had it in spades.
Luckily for me, Gilded Cage lacked another staple of the genre: a heavy focus on romance. There was very little romance in the book, with most of the focus being on the Equals and plot shenanigans. Unfortunately, what little romance it contained was pretty icky. When Abi arrives on the Jardine estate, she almost instantly gets a crush on the Jardine middle son. While he’s not as bad as either of his brothers, the whole idea of a slave/master romance is so incredibly gross. Just urgh. How can people like this? It makes me want to take a shower.
Aside from her cringe-worthy romantic plot line, Abi did feel smart and competent. Luke was also a likable protagonist, if a bit bland. However, they weren’t the only POV characters in Gilded Cage. The perspectives of several Equal characters are given, all of whom are varying levels of despicable. The worst of the lot is Gavar, who makes off hand references to raping lower class women. His fiancee Bouda and her willingness to destroy others in her pursuit of power was also up there. The youngest brother, Silyen, came off as sociopathic, not seeming to feel any sort of empathy at all.
Gilded Cage obviously works with the British class system. The Equals are the aristocracy, although there’s not actually a monarch. In a way, the power dynamics actually remind me of Stroud’s Bartimeaus trilogy, although that book series was much better executed. However, it was interesting reading this as an American and bringing my own cultural baggage in with me. While Gilded Cage may have been focused on the British class system, the cultural comparison for me was American slavery and everything that goes along with that. With that in mind, it was especially striking how homologous the cast was. Everyone is straight (or as not been confirmed one way or the other) and everyone except for two characters were white. Both of those two characters were black, and I don’t think either was treated very well by the narrative. Overall, I think the lack of intersectionality really harmed the relevancy of Gilded Cage‘s themes of oppression. I do think the racial dynamics of the book could be unpacked more, but I don’t feel equipped to do so.
On another note, the world building of Gilded Cage felt shaky. The focus is very narrow, and we get little glimpse of the world outside England’s borders. Some of the larger implications of the slave days appear not to have been considered. For instance, why doesn’t everyone put the days off until the very end of their life? Why do people just seem so accepting of the slave days? Why did Abi’s and Luke’s life pre slave days seem hardly materially different from a middle class English family in our world, even with a enormously different social and political system? What effect does the slave days have on the economy? The world building seemed more loosely sketched out than fully filled in.
Essentially, Gilded Cage is a potato chip book. Very little substance, but easy to read. I wouldn’t say it’s light exactly, but it easily qualifies as trashy fun. I don’t regret reading it, although I don’t know if I will ultimately pick up the sequel.
I received an ARC of Gilded Cage from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a free and honest review.