“I hoped you were going to be here!” Vic James said as she rushed across the bar at Super-Relaxed Fantasy Club a few months ago. She gave me a big hug and pushed something very exciting into my hand: one of the very first ARCs of her debut novel, The Gilded Cage, which is out early next year and the first in her Dark Gifts trilogy. “I do hope you love it!” she said.
And I did.
The Gilded Cage is a dystopian sort-of-YA novel set in an alternative Britain whose path diverged from our own at the time of the Civil War. In The Gilded Cage, the country is ruled by an elite of magically gifted individuals known as Equals. Ordinary people’s lives are largely unaffected by their magical rulers, save that every person, once in their life has to serve a ten-year term of servitude to the Equals. That time is known as slavedays. During that time, a person loses all their rights and becomes a chattel. But once a person’s slavedays are complete, they gain additional rights and status in society.
The Gilded Cage follows one family who choose to do their time together, as soon as their youngest child is old enough to serve. They hope that by doing it early, the children will benefit in later life. Abi, the oldest child arranges for them all to serve at Kyneston, the estate of the quintessential Equal family, the Jenners, whose ancestors played a key role in the Civil War and its aftermath, and were the architects of the current system
The experiences of the three children are very different. The capable Abi becomes an administrator for the Kyneston estate before finding herself a character in one of her favourite romance novels: the ‘normal’ girl who falls for one of the Equals. Her youngest sister Daisy, whose job it is to act as nursemaid and companion for a young half-Equal child, becomes the well-treated favourite of Kyneston’s heir. But it is the middle child, Luke, who has the more interesting journey. He becomes separated from the family and is sent to Millmoor, a brutal factory town in the north of England. Through Luke’s eyes we see the cruelty and exploitation on which the luxurious and moneyed society depends. Luke becomes increasingly drawn into an underground movement focused on exposing and overturning that system.
What I love most about The Gilded Cage is how quintessentially English it is, particularly in its treatment of class and privilege. And by that I don’t mean it is some Downton Abbey-like rose-tinted view of the past where everyone knows their place and is happy about it. This is a novel that exposes the cruelty, unfairness and exploitation that underpins such privilege. Inherited wealth and power is as fickle as the magical powers of the Equals. But the novel is also steeped in the experience of the industrial revolution. The ‘satanic mills’ of Millmoor are brutal, but leavened with human kindness. And there are nods back to events like the Peterloo Massacre. Even the characters and places are gloriously English too. One of the characters (Lord Lytchett Matravers) is even named after a place near where I grew up, and I know (once Vic pointed it out to me) the endless estate wall that inspires Kyneston’s wall.
The Gilded Cage is glorious. Best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Mine’s a Bourbon.
Goodreads rating: 4*