Book cover: Tarnished City - Vic James (a chained hand points down, a Scottish castle in the background)With the Chancellor dead, the Jardines are back in control of Britain. As Luke Hadley is delivered to the Scottish fortress of Lord Crovan for his Condemnation, Abi escapes to join Luke’s agitating allies. But can they do anything to avert the horror the Jardines will bring to Britain – let alone rescue poor Luke before he chooses to walk through the Last Door?

Tarnished City picks up from the point Gilded Cage left off with barely a backward glance – this isn’t a sequel that makes for a good entry point to Vic James dystopian alternative Britain (or one that can be discussed without raging spoilers for the first book).

Luke is in the hands of the sadistic Lord Crovan – only to find that the games the Equal plays with his prisoners are subtler than mere torture in the dungeons of Eilean Dòchais. Greeted by Coira, the untouchable mistress of below-stairs, he finds himself assigned rooms that would do an Equal proud and a smart if ill-fitting suit for dinner. It soon becomes apparent that house guests and servants alike are fellow Condemned, with Crovan running a sort of Stanford prison experiment: the golden collars around each prisoner’s throat prevent servants harming house guests and anyone harming Crovan himself, but the servants are fair game.

Luke’s illusions about his fellow humans are quickly dashed, although he persists in a youthful naïveté about just what crimes they previously committed. As with any prison drama, the inmates have alternative facts about how they ended up there, which Luke largely accepts – in spite of the evidence that Blake and others are monsters – given the injustice that led to his own incarceration. Innocent or guilty, everyone at Eilean Dòchais is Crovan’s plaything, and while most have earned their punishment, not all remember why. Lord Crovan enjoys taking memories as well as inflicting pain, so Luke resorts to keeping a secret diary to remind himself of the facts.

Abi, meanwhile, has joined Luke’s former allies at the Tresco estate, Jackson and Angel – or Heir Meilyr Tresco and Heir Bouda’s sister Bodina Matravers, as they are now known to be. Meilyr is still reeling from having his Skill ripped out of him at Kynaston. He is still determined to rescue Luke and end the slavedays, but both his and Dina’s belief that they can actually do so is wavering in the sudden knowledge of their own vulnerability. Steadfast in her refusal to let Luke go, Abi finds herself at the heart of the resistance to Equal rule and the Jardines’ authoritarian crackdown.

My main criticism of Gilded Cage was that I never warmed to the Hadleys, finding them thinly-written and unengaging in comparison to their glittering, nuanced Equal antagonists. Tarnished City puts this right – while we still get to follow the machinations of Silyen Jardine and Bouda Matravers, the Hadleys dominate and come into their own.

With few illusions left to lose (and this volume largely dedicated to smashing each and every one of them), Abi emerges as a stronger, smarter character with her unbelievable romantic attachment largely off-page, her dedication to freeing her brother evolving naturally into a broader determination to free her people from the Equals. Luke – unexpectedly, given his situation – is the light in the growing darkness, the boy who refuses to give up on his belief in human goodness.

And the gloom gathers fast here, as Vic James ratchets up the dystopia faster than you can say Make Britain Great Again. The Jardine playbook is terribly familiar – whip up the common people, feed them lies, keep them under the thumb – with a side helping of ‘encourage the utterly unspeakable’ with its hands-on approach to mob justice. By the climax, I found Tarnished City was unhelpfully exacerbating my anxieties with its close-to-the-bone depiction of a lofty, self-interested elite manipulating the media and getting the common turkey to vote for Christmas.

It’s not original, but it’s a deft dark mirror, and I found it gripping from start to finish. Add in the Equal plots – Silyen Jardine’s pursuit of his own mysterious agenda; the realisation of his peers that their Skill exceeds their expectations; the weird implications of the briefly-glimpsed otherworld and its king – and there’s more than enough here to keep me on the edge of my seat for the third (final?) volume. I’m still hoping Gavar will come good, I’m dying to know where Faiers actually stands, and as for Silyen himself, it’s anybody’s guess. There are some duff notes: I remain uncomfortable with the relationship between Bouda and Whittam Jardine (he’s enough of a political villain without being a sex pest too, and she didn’t need to submit to his pawing to underline that she’ll do anything to get ahead). However, the good easily outbalanced the bad for me.

Roll on Bright Ruin.

****

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