Gilded Cage by Vic James
The concept of Gilded Cage is pretty basic–aristocrats are magically gifted and commoners are not. The Jardines are a magically powerful family, and the story revolves around their household and the Hadley family, all of whom end up as slaves at the Jardine estate. The world building is deceptively simple, and while that can make the story a bit sloppy at times, it lends itself well to supporting multiple POVs. The story mostly weaves between the POVs of the Jardine and Hadley family. The most prominent POV in the story is that of Luke, and while I thought I wouldn’t enjoy his sections early on, I actually really liked his character and became devastatingly attached to him, which is what kept this story going for me. I didn’t dislike Silyen or Abi, but I wasn’t nearly as interested in Abi as the naive slave girl with a crush on her master or Silyen as a master manipulator. Silyen styles himself as a Chessmaster, but there was little in this book (beyond an initial ploy with his aunt and the Chancellor) that actually showed off his ‘grand plan’. A lot of what happened seemed to heavily be coincidental and maybe going in a direction Silyen could use, but his plans seem to rely on ‘reading’ other people or ‘guessing’ their actions correctly. This was really lazy characterization for me, and during Silyen’s POV section, we weren’t given many clues to his plans, which he presumably thinks about a lot, so I just didn’t believe him as this master strategist.
Gilded Cage wants to be a dystopian Victorian novel, and in its worst moments, it desperately tries to ape the cleverness of Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norwell. At its best moments, it has the appeal of Downtown Abby while it vacillates between the complexities of the aristocrats and the slaves. The characters have to intrigue you or else I don’t think you’ll like this story. There’s not a lot there to the world building, and it relies on characters telling you a lot about themselves and their views on the world. Bouda, who isn’t a likable character at all, is used masterfully as a juxtaposition to characters like Abi and Luke. Without the vacillating POVs, this story looks a lot flatter and could’ve become repetitive and boring. The POVs are kept kind of limited, though, and certain characters aren’t given any or very little time solely in the service of trying to deliver a plot twist at the end. Oh? The end? It doesn’t really work. It relies on feeling sympathy for a non-POV character, and at that point, not even Luke freaking cared about Jackson, so that took some of the punch out of what happened, too. There were so many characters introduced, and the situation seems so entrenched for the slaves that either something big needed to happen at the end to make a real change in the world of the story, and it doesn’t. I had a hunch that this might be a ‘building’ type of book where we meet the characters and get a cliff-hanger ending, which is exactly what happens. The read itself wasn’t disappointing but be prepared to get let down by the ending even if (and especially if) you enjoyed the book up til that point, which I did.
Gilded Cage does all the things that a story should do to support multiple POVs. I’ve been having trouble reading stories with lots of POVs that don’t tie together well, but the simple premise of Gilded Cage makes all the disparte characters slide together with ease. The characters are woven together well but expect any character lacking a POV chapter to be used in a surprise plot twist. That’s the downside of too many POVS–any character that doesn’t get one is a ‘plot’ character, but there are enough interesting characters in Gilded Cage to mostly mask this. Hopefully, in the rest of this series, more of the characters will get their own chapters so the plot can continue organically. For as weak as the world building can feel, the characters are all interesting and most of them get abused frequently, so I felt genuine pity for most of the characters, all of whom are trapped in various situations that they can’t quite comprehend how to escape. Silyen seems to have A Grand Plan to change this, but while his motives are clear-ish, the execution of said plan seems haphazard at best and entirely coincidental at worst.
Rating: 3 stars. I devoured this book, but I hope that the world building gets better as the series goes on.