Book cover: Gilded Cage - Vic James (ironwork and the silhouette of a bird in flight)In a deeply different nearly now, Britain is ruled by the Equals – those with the Skill to assert their rights. UnSkilled commoners owe ten years of their lives in slave labour, with no protection under the law. As they begin their slavedays, the Hadley siblings find themselves at the heart of the fight for the future.

For some reason, I was expecting something Victorian when I picked up Gilded Cage, so the teenagers that greeted me in its pages were something of a surprise. This is modern Britain, but not as we know it. In this reality, Charles I was tortured to death when the Skilled (magically gifted) deposed the monarch and seized power.

400 years later, the ironically-named Equals hold Britain with an iron fist in a velvet glove. The commoners live familiar lives – reality TV, music videos, school – until they volunteer to begin their slavedays, the ten years of labour each person owes the Equals. Those who come back from the slavetowns won’t speak of it; nobody knows quite what is in store for them until they get there (this nagged at my suspension of disbelief, until it became clear how trivial an act of Skill it is to suppress memory or stop a wagging tongue).

The Hadleys are a happy family living on the outskirts of Manchester. Pretty, clever Abi wants to go to medical school; Luke, a year or two younger, is still fiercely kicking a football; both dote on little sister Daisy. Luke is appalled to discover their parents have signed the family into their slavedays – and only slightly appeased when it becomes evident that Abi has managed to win them a place in service to the Jardine family of Kyneston rather than the expected assignment to the workhouse hell of Millmoor slavetown.

The Jardines, most powerful family in England, descended from the man that killed the King. The Jardines, known for temper as red as their hair. The Jardines, with the heir who shot the mother of his illegitimate child in an ‘accident’, an impossible unSkilled second son, and a youngest son who sends shivers down even the Equals’ spines.

No prizes for guessing that Abi’s coup may not be the boon it seems.

“Have a quick ten years”

When Luke is ripped away from his family and bundled off to Millmoor anyway, it’s clear that promises made to a commoner count for nothing. Expect plenty of direct and indirect commentary on power structures and inequalities.

This is one of those absorbing reads that effortlessly builds a recognisable universe so quickly that it’s a while before you can stop, examine it, and find it beguiling and new for all its familiar elements. Vic James does an excellent job in establishing the rules of her dystopian, magical world – and then repeatedly peels away the surface to reveal nastier implications hidden underneath. And trust me, there’s always room for it to get worse.

Young protagonists Abi and Luke Hadley are likeable and blessed (or cursed) with good hearts and a desire to do right by others. But unexpectedly, I found them the weakest links – blank pages to be overwritten by their new environments. Needless to say the book gets right to its task – Luke is quickly sucked into indiscreet acts of rebellion in Millmoor, while Abi gets a little too cosy with her Jardine masters.

However, they are overshadowed by the glittering malice of their Equal counterparts: ambitious ice queen Bouda Matravers; sulky heir Gavar Jardine, who has a conscience buried beneath his fiery temper; and, of course, the unreadable Silyen Jardine, the boy with all the answers. But it’s not just the Equals – sharp-edged fixer Renie had me transfixed from first meeting – a girlish Artful Dodger working the Millmoor streets – while even Daisy Hadley quickly shapes up to be a fascinating pawn.

It was these secondary characters who caught my interest and kept me turning the pages to find out where the evolving plot would take them. I still have no idea what Silyen is up to, and I’m as eager to find out as I am to see whether Gavar can live up to his potential rather than down to his instincts (and whether he and Bouda will in fact kill each other).

Vic James has done an excellent job at evoking atmosphere: the gruelling terror of Millmoor and the twin fear and excitement of the risks Luke runs; the keep-your-head-down attitude of those in service at Kyneston; the uncaring privilege and imposing magic of the Equals.

While this is marketed at YA and has teen protagonists, it is a gripping, ageless read and I can’t wait for the sequels. Highly recommended.

****

Gilded Cage is available now in the UK (lucky us!) and released in the USA on February 14th.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.