Have you ever read a book that’s so compelling you can hardly put it down but is so annoying that you wish you could? That’s how I felt over the 8 days I spent reading Gilded Cage. I was curious about some of its plot points, but I had so many issues with it that I was frustrated the entire time I read it.
Gilded Cage is a young-adult fantasy novel set in the present day, where some people (the Equals) have magical abilities (the Skill) and enslave those who lack such abilities (the Commoners). Some countries have improved their policies and allowed equal opportunities for both Equals and Commoners; however, in the U.K., where the story is set, slavery is still in effect.
When the story begins, one of our protagonists, Abigail, and her family are about to begin their slave days. Commoners must dedicate 10 years of their lives to being a slave, however individuals can choose when to begin. Parents can choose for children under 18, but all Commoners must begin before they are 60.
Abigail is 18 and is studying to be a doctor. However, she is willing to set her aspirations aside to start her slave days with her family, which includes her mom and dad, her 15-year-old* (I forgot his age, but it’s about there) brother Luke, and her 10-year-old sister Daisy. Abigail plans for them all to have an easy time working their slave days at the Kyneston estate, one of the most powerful Equal families in the country that is managed by brothers Gavar, Jenner, and Silyen Jardine. However, her family is ripped apart when Luke is taken to Millmoor, the harsh factory town that mistreats its slaves.
The story takes off from there. Told from the point-of-view of various characters, we learn of the harsh conditions Luke endures at Millmoor and his participation in a group that seeks to undermine the government, as well as the relatively cozy life as a slave at Kyneston, where Abigail finds herself developing a crush on one of the Jardine brothers. We see how the Equals govern the country from Gavar’s POV and learn of a proposal set forth by the Councilor, the political head of the country, to end slave days, which sets much of the plot in motion
I didn’t like the summary on Goodreads so I wrote my own. It’s not better, but at least it’s not as misleading. If I’d read that Goodreads summary before reading the book, I’d think Abigail is a free spirit. She’s not. I got no indication that she is from the story.
Disclaimer: I requested this book for review from Netgalley and am glad I got it, but I’ll be very honest about what I thought of it.
As I said above, I was hooked on this story despite being annoyed by it. I now understand why this book has received such mixed reviews. The premise of the story is interesting. It made me wonder why slavery is still prevalent and how the slaves would overcome the Equals’ powers. Since the story is set in the present day, I also wondered how the inclusion of magical abilities will be used to explain noted historical events and certain advancements in society, like technology.
However, as I read, I was disappointed because I did not receive any substantial explanation for the mechanics of this story’s world. Basically, the world building fell flat. The characters too weren’t well developed. There is no substance to Daisy or her parents, but since they are side characters, I was willing to overlook that. However, some of the POV characters who figured prominently in the story didn’t receive much development either; for example, the brothers Gavar and Silyen.
Gavar, the eldest of the Jardine brothers, seems to be perpetually frustrated and tends to tune out of anything that doesn’t directly concern him. We are told to think of him as being an angry beast of a man but with a soft spot for his daughter. However, his character remains the same throughout much of the story and I saw him more as a device used to show what’s occurring in places that Commoner characters such as Abigail and Luke can’t access, rather than as an essential character in the story. He didn’t feel real to me.
Neither did Silyen, the youngest Jardine brother, though I was much more interested in his character because of how powerful and deceitful he seems to be. We read from his POV twice, I think, and both times felt like a tease. I wanted to know more about him and how he thinks, especially at a particularly momentous event where he displays the strength of his power, since that event greatly influences the plot. Actually his suggestion of that event is what sets much of the plot in motion.
I understand that Silyen is supposed to be a shadowy, mysterious figure, but I think that because it’s what other characters say of him, not because he often acts in a way to convince me so. When he shows up unannounced or unexpectedly helps a character, I don’t read it as him having an ulterior motive, but as him being random and probably acting out of character. I get that the author wants us to be curious about his intentions, which I was, but that’s because he is absent for much of the story after just two chapters from his POV, which makes me think the author’s storytelling is weak rather than convinced that the character is mysterious.
So, flat world building and weak character development. I also think there were times when the story progressed too quickly, such as in one of the later chapters when Gavar tells us about the last debate on the Councilor’s proposal that occurs at Kyneston. His narration jumps from one thing to the next so quickly that it was hard for me to tell when exactly a particular event occurred or how it progressed to the next.
I also had a lot of issues with the “social club” and attempts at undermining authority at Millmoor. Millmoor is a place where people are supposedly harshly mistreated, but only Luke is picked on. And I’m surprised that no one has attempted to run away from such a horrible place. In all the “games” that Luke and is his social club members participate in, why isn’t there someone who is selfish and uses the opportunities to attempt to escape or get something only for their self? Why hasn’t anyone proposed to the Doc that they use the game to leave Millmoor rather than just spray paint a wall in the night? Why do these oppressed people simply accept that they can help a man escape Millmoor’s prison but not escape the institution themselves? Why, in this technology age, would such an institution place slaves in charge of its technological systems, which can be easily compromised?
**Minor spoiler** The major slave uprising also upset me. It made no sense that people would quickly and easily decide to participate in an event that could potentially add more days to the 10 years they have to spend in Millmoor. No fucking sense. I was willing to overlook that at first, but when Luke’s co-worker (I forgot his name because he’s only mentioned twice, but he prefers to just stick to the rules and do his slave days) decides to also protest without first doubting whether he should, I got annoyed. In such a situation, there would be some people who would question and doubt and decide not to participate. It was too damn easy to get supporters. Was Skill involved? I would be willing to believe this if the slaves were forced by Skill to protest. **End spoiler**
And again, why doesn’t anyone try to escape???!!! That shit blows my damn mind! Ugh!! Everyone says slave days, especially at Millmoor, are crap but no one tries to run away. What? What! Smdh.
Another problem I have with this book is how Black characters are included in the story. It’s a difficult thing to pull off when the story is basically an alternate history of this world that includes slavery, though the reason for slavery is different. However it seems that the few Black characters that were included were just thrown in to prove a point: that it’s the “accident of birth” that determines where one falls in society.
Sure, that passage helps with world building because we get more insight into how this world is divided and operates, but, because there are only a handful of Black people in the story, all strategically placed, this passage rubbed me the wrong way. The Chancellor dude, Zelston, is the only Black Equal mentioned in the story. The other characters can all be assumed to be White because we get no other indication that there are other races represented (though I thought Bouda was Black or mixed or something because of her name. But from how she’s described, I guess she’s not).
Oz, a slave who is later held prisoner, is, I think, conveniently Black and close in age to Zelston to cause Gavar, the POV character for that section, to make the comparison that hey, these dudes are similar on the outside but are not on the inside because one has magical powers and the other doesn’t. I don’t think this comparison was needed. Granted Gavar, who is White, then goes on to compare himself to his own daughter who is probably unlike him because she probably doesn’t have powers, and I do see the reason for this section (world building and all), but it rubbed me the wrong way. I think it was easy to infer (without this section) that race and color does not determine whether or not a person is able to Skill.
So despite the few Black characters mentioned, I wouldn’t call this book a diverse read at all. Their inclusion just seems too strategic.
Anyway, here is something positive about the book. What kept me reading was Silyen. I was curious about his powers and what exactly he’s up to. And Luke’s story was interesting as well because I wanted to know whether or not the slaves could overrun Millmoor or escape. But both plot lines where disappointing ones to focus on because one was undeveloped and the other made no sense by the end so I was very disappointed upon completing the story (I guess this isn’t very positive), which is why I give it…
It’s hard to talk about this without including spoilers, so I give up. The world building is weak and so was the character development. The pacing was also off. Sometimes it was slow, which I didn’t mind, but at other times it progressed too quickly.
My interest in some plot lines motivated me to complete the story, but overall, it wasn’t great. I think it would have potential if the world building is stronger.
I do not recommend it and I do not plan to continue with the series. However, since it held my attention and it’s obvious it needed more planning for it to be better, I wouldn’t mind trying another book by the author that’s unrelated to this story.
I need a huge spoiler section because I have so many damn problems with this story. Actually, I jotted down most of these as I read along because I was that pissed.
- First is Abigail thinking the worst thing about slavery is not being able hook up with the guy she immediately got a crush on when she first meets him. That was the stupidest thing I’d read since starting the book and I was only a few pages in. Her family was just ripped apart because of slavery and being a “smart, bookish” girl, she should be more aware of what happens during slavery (though as I read on, I realized she doesn’t know much other than the names of the Equals) and should know there are worse things about slavery than not being able to hook up with her master’s son.
- Then there are the Jardine brothers. From the prologue (which wasn’t needed) and Silyen’s first chapter, I got the impression that the brothers don’t think much of slaves, well except Jenner for obvious reasons. But as the story progresses, I got the impression that they see the slaves as people to be respected. It’s hard to tell if this is because of complexity added to these characters or inconsistency in the characters. If they see slaves as beneath them and such, then why do they feel the need to explain themselves to a slave girl? I can understand why Jenner would do that since he has no Skill and probably relates to the slaves/Commoners, but what’s the excuse for Silyen and Gavar? And why do they tell Abi so much about themselves and their family and the secret goings on at the estate? It makes no sense that they should feel so familiar with her so quickly. It would be good if there was an explanation for this. Silyen mentions in his first chapter that Abigail’s age may be a problem for his brothers (since they are close in age), but it would be good to have that confirmed somehow by an acknowledgement from the other boys. And what’s up with Silyen just easily telling Abigail and Daisy how Libby’s mom died? (Which further shows that the prologue was pointless.)
- And what’s going on between Daisy and Gavar? She’s 10 and he’s a grown-ass man. Their relationship seems perverted. Does Gavar think of her as a daughter or something else? And why would they place a 10-year-old slave girl in charge of a baby? That makes no sense. I’d understand if she’s the baby’s playmate, but it seems that she’s the baby’s caretaker too…What?
- What does Renie mean by those who are “fixed” and those who are “unfixable”? Is she talking about that weirdo that trains people to be dogs?
- It’s mentioned that Skill was used by the Dutch in the 18th century to make trade winds to the Indies, which made me wonder how long had that been going on? Did Christopher Columbus also use Skill? Did the Atlantic slave trade happen? Did natives in other countries have the Skill? For example, since there is a Union States of the America, what happened when the Europeans arrived in the Americas to conquer the land. Did the Native Indians have the Skill? Did they have to come to a compromise? What is the government like in America in that Skilled world? How about Africa? Is it all carved up by European countries? If the Atlantic slave trade took place in this world, does Zelston ever feel conflicted about enslaving Commoners? How exactly are Equals able to maintain pure bloodlines? Are there more Equals than Commoners?
- Angel of the North. Angel of the Fucking North who’s supposed to help them all buss a Black dude out of prison is a white, blond-haired girl. Wow. No surprise there. (rolls eyes) (i.e. a trope I’m tired of)
- I also have an issue with the Oz break-out plan. Basically, What the fuck?! I can see why Milliebots was frustrated. I was frustrated too. That’s an elaborate-ass break out plan that got them through 3 security check points AND past a powerful Equal and no one in this social club thinks to, oh, save themselves?! What?! I can’t believe they’re actually suffering in Millmoor. It sounds more like they’re on a vacation they really hate. I mean all that planning that puts everyone at risk of getting more slave days added and NO ONE thinks “Fuck this shit, I’m taking the opportunity to save myself and go the fuck home.” Or, “Oh hell nah, that’s too fucking risky.” Or “Fuck Oz, let’s fucking run away to the USA or Australia or wherever the fuck else.” WTF!! Even if Skill was used, why doesn’t anyone question what’s happening or how easy it is to get away with this stuff? Why??!!
- And why haven’t they attempted to run away? Why doesn’t anyone ask about that? Why doesn’t Luke who’s at a shitty place ask about that? It seems that everyone, even the resistance people, accept this slavery thing. What exactly is this social get-together thing about? It seems like a childish group formed to show that they can do cool things outside the rules. I’m surprised no one’s foremost thought is to escape and not simply resist.
- According to Ryan, slavery is like a university. Hmm… He’s damn right it is. In his world, it is. Everyone’s just hanging out. The slavery part of it is that they’re given shitty food, endure backbreaking work, and are horribly treated by the institution (not much evidence of this) but otherwise, there’s lots of time to hang out and show how resistant you can be. Pretty damn sweet. I love Luke’s reaction to this though.
- It’s hard for me to believe the slavery aspect of this. We never see anyone working or wanting to leave their estates. Abi works for five seconds and breaks to think about her sister, her brother, and her crush on Jenner. Luke says he’s working, but we don’t see him do much of anything so it’s just all talk. We mostly see him doing resistance duties. Slaves get a lot of hang-out time. Those Equal overseer peeps need to realize the slaves, or maybe just Luke and Abi, have a lot of damn free time. And other than them saying all the time “woe is me, I’m a slave” I don’t see them suffering much. Well, Luke, yea. Abi don’t do shit.
- I get the impression that the goal isn’t to escape slavery.
- Also, what do Commoners do? How does this society work? Do Commoners go to work and make money? And if so, what sorts of jobs do they do, other than what we’ve seen at Millmoor? Doesn’t slavery take away job opportunities? Don’t they get pissed that they have to work to make a living and then have to give up 10 years of their lives to work for no pay? Do they not question slavery and protest against it? What do they think of slaves? Do those Commoner security guards at Millmoor do slave days as well?
- Overbitch. That monicker pissed me off. Why is there a derogatory name for the woman given that lousy ass job (even if she likes it) and none given to the Equals who fucking started the damn slavery?
- “Jackson and Angel could break a man out of Millmoor, so they should have no problem getting a message to him—even here.” I’m so pissed Luke didn’t see something wrong with this thought. I was hoping that by the end we would be told that the Silence was used on members of the social club so they wouldn’t remember begging to be freed.
- Speaking of the end, I still don’t know why Silyen came up with the grand idea to end slave days. I thought that would be explained by the end since it sets off all the events that make up this story.
- And Abigail running away at the end was so…meh. By that time, I was so frustrated, I didn’t care. Someone should have attempted to run away earlier in the book (the pointless prologue doesn’t count).