Tarnished City – Vic James

Regular readers of this blog will know that I loved The Gilded Cage, the debut novel from Vic James.  So I was delighted to get a review copy of its sequel, Tarnished City from Pan Macmillan.  Go read my earlier review if you want the backdrop to this trilogy.

You will be relieved to hear that Tarnished City picks up immediately after the cliffhanger ending of the previous book, and continues with the same, unrelenting pace.  Without spoiling the plot of either this book or the first in the series I can say that the events of The Gilded Cage have irreversible changed the lives of all those caught up in them.  Both Abi and Luke find themselves set on very different – but equally dangerous – paths.

One of the things I loved about The Gilded Cage was its commentary on English history and class issues.  This continues in Tarnished City, and James’s writing if anything has got even more political.  This book exposes in some detail the culture of the super-rich and powerful, exploring whether they should be seeking to preserve that position of power, or using it to help the less privileged.  In a searing look at contemporary celebrity culture, James looks at the way the public are at times complicit in perpetuating those power structures by lionising the very people who do the least to help them.  And where the last book fictionalised the Peterloo massacre, Tarnished City gives us both the Gunpowder Plot and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This is incredibly high-grade writing from Vic James – Tarnished City is insightful and thought-provoking while delivering a thoroughly ripping yarn.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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The Gilded Cage – Vic James

“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*

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik is perhaps best known as the author of the Temeraire novels.  Those are glorious adventure stories about the Napoleonic Wars, but with an airforce composed of dragons.  Her new novel, Uprooted, is published tomorrow by Macmillan (as always, I got an advance copy from NetGalley).   Novik draws on her Polish heritage and turns her hand to a new world and setting.  The novel is heavily rooted in European folk tales in both setting and style.

Uprooted is a YA story about a tomboyish girl who discovers she has a talent for magic.  Agnieszka lives in a small community in a valley that is slowly being taken over by a malevolent wood populated by monstrous creatures.  The valley is protected by a wizard, known as the Dragon, who lives in a tower alone except for a girl he selects from the valley to act as his housekeeper for ten years.

The novel opens with the Dragon selecting his new housekeeper.  Rather than choosing the polished and beautiful Kasia, who has been groomed all her life for the role, he picks her best friend Agnieszka because of her nascent talent for magic.  One of the real strengths of the novel is how Novik deals with the friendship between the two girls, and the impact of the Dragon’s choice on both of them.  Kasia struggles to adapt to a different future from the one she was expecting and Agnieszka wrestles with guilt and jealousy.

Agniezka proves to be a challenging student of magic.  She finds the Dragon’s style of intricate and complex spells difficult.  What comes naturally to her is a much naturalistic style of magic that she discovers almost by accident.  She is a fantastic character and role model for young women.  She finds her own path through life, refusing to conform to the expectations of others or the norms of society.  She shows initiative and remains single-mindedly committed to solving the wider problem of The Wood.

Conventional fairy tale tropes are turned upside down in the novel.  Princes are neither charming nor heroic, except when it suits their own interests.  The aristocracy are bitchy and frivolous.

The novel also presents a refreshingly healthy view of romantic relationships: sex positive, with a strong thread about the importance of consent and thinking carefully before committing to action.

The story is as engaging as its main characters.  I found it very difficult to put down because I wanted to keep on reading to find out what happens next.  And there are few better compliments for a book than that.

Goodreads rating: 4*