Gilded Cage by Vic James
Gilded Cage tells the story of an alternate history of the England where rich people with magic called Equals overthrew King Charles I in the 17th Century and have lorded it over the poor plebs for the following four hundred years by forcing them into slavery for ten years of their lives so they can eventually hold the prestigious honour of being considered actual humans. It follows two members of the Hadley family, Luke and Abi, as they enter their period as slaves; Luke being forced to Milloor, a 19th century-esque factory town and Abi to Kyneston, an 18th century-esque estate where the rest of the family work for the elite Parva-Jardine family.
I am always on the lookout for a good dystopian novel and the plot of Gilded Cage made it seem like it would be just up my alley. The publisher’s blurb even describes it as an Orwellian vision of Britain (I wouldn’t say Britain; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland barely get a look in). The novel, however, is a massive failure in my opinion.
Firstly, the novel really fails as a dystopia. As it has been described as Orwellian, I am going to compare it heavily to Nineteen Eighty-Four since that is what the author and publisher wants us to do. The novel really doesn’t feel like a nightmarish alternate history. Yes, people are forced onto slavery but that is something that is common with our own history so you can’t really say that is dystopian. Millmoor is a hellish place but from the description it sounds no worse than Manchester in the 19th Century. The only thing that comes across as truly horrific is the level of mind control that allows a person to enslave a man as a dog. The world is not adequately realised to make it seem as bad as James wants you to believe it is. Outside the world of slavery, the alternate world has progressed much as it has in our reality: there are phones, television and the internet. There is nothing that makes is seem to out of the ordinary. In short, it is an incomplete dystopia. When you look at Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dystopia is complete. Big Brother is in your home and in your head and there is no escape. Gilded Cage gives us ten years and then you’re free.
Secondly, the novel suffers from a major identity crisis. I couldn’t tell if it was a young adult novel or if it was trying to be a mature work of fiction. The politics would have you believe that it was but the novel, in actuality, was very juvenile. It has the obvious young adult romance plot between Abi Hadley and Jenner Jardine (seemingly ripped straight from the pages of the romance novels she likes to read so much). The story is also rather weak. It focuses on far too many characters and none of them are given the amount of attention needed in order to either develop the characters or the plot. In the first hundred pages Luke has gone from being ripped from his family and being sent to Millmoor to joining a rebellion. There’s no depth to the story. There’s very little description. It is all empty and vacuous plot where nothing really matters because nothing goes anywhere and there are too many characters to pay attention to so you don’t know what’s going on half the time. Compare that to Nineteen Eighty-Four where the first hundred pages focuses only on Winston Smith and the only rebellious act he has committed by the point is writing in a diary. This, in my opinion, only emphasises the superficial plot of Gilded Cage where writing in a diary in Nineteen Eighty-Four comes across as a more rebellious act than a character outright joining a rebellion movement. Another problem with the narrative is the author’s choice of language. The book is written in third person but James chooses, rather strangely in my opinion, to spatter the narrative with slang and colloquial language which seem very out of place in a novel which is trying to be so political. The words gob, scoffing (really who uses scoffing anymore in an eating context outside of the Famous Five?) and bloke all appear in the descriptive narrative when they should be restricted to the dialogue. There’s just no place for them in the story.
Thirdly, an most importantly, the characters are a massive failure. As I said above, there are too many of them with POV chapters and, as a result, you really stop caring about them. I couldn’t give anymore of a shit what happened to any of them. They were flat, one dimensional characters whose personalities came directly from tvtropes.com. Pick a character trope and you’ll find it here. Insta-romance plot, rebellious teens, creepy weirdos with unknown motivations, arseholes, bitches, power hungry twats, the token ‘he’s not as bad as the rest of his arsehole family, characters; they’re all here in spades and they’re all very boring.
It would have been better to:
- Make the story more adult both in the characters and the plot. It should be a lot darker than it came across. You can tell that James wants to make a lot of comments about the current political climate but the narrative was just too juvenile for that. The characters should be older.
- Actually make me believe that people are living in a dystopia. Nineteen Eighty-Four works as a dystopian vision of the future because there is a genuine feeling that people are being watched an controlled. There’s the two minute hate, the constant rewriting of history to suit the narrative and there are genuinely horrifying consequences for defying the ruling body. There’s no hope in the end, the characters are jaded and know their fates. It can’t be changed, Big Brother can’t be overthrown. The totalitarianism is complete and endless. I haven’t read the rest of the series but I can already see how it will pan out (unless James throws a massive curveball and defies my expectations but I doubt she will).
- The world should have a more timeless quality. Again, this is in view to making it a better dystopian, but it is very much set in the current era and that dates it very quickly. All right, James could be making the point that today’s political and social climate is a dystopia but it is far too clumsy to be a valid point. Nineteen Eighty- Four is set in that year but it has a timeless air about it. It could be set at any point in the twentieth century and beyond, it never ages. It has got to the point where it has no beginning and no end, it is just there and is ongoing and always will be there. It is eternal. Both novels are making points about society and politics but Orwell is a far superior writer and makes his point more clearly and concisely. Both books are similar lengths but Orwell manages to condense his entire point of view into one book, focusing on one character and manages to convey the horrors of a dystopian world better than James can and she’s doing it over three books. Gilded Cage really should have had one protagonist and focused on them. Luke probably. He had the most intriguing story and that’s saying a lot.
I’m rambling now, I didn’t mean to. I started this review by giving Gilded Cage two out of five but writing this has made me feel even angrier about it so I’m downgrading it to one star. It simply does not live up to expectation and wants to be more than it actually is. It’s a mess, truly. The plot is a mess, even though it has a promising premise, the characters are terribly written and not given enough space to grow. James obviously wants to come across as intelligent and insightful but she doesn’t. I read and reviewed a free book off iBooks, Falling for Her Brother’s Best Friend by Noelle Adams and I gave it a better review. At least Adams knows what she is writing is romantic trash and doesn’t claim it to be anything more than what it is. James wants to be considered to be making a strong political point and that makes me dislike Gilded Cage more than a trashy romance novel even though I really don’t like trashy romance novels.
I definitely won’t be reading the rest of the series, let’s just leave this entire episode in the past and my search for an actually good dystopian novel continues because Gilded Cage was not good at all.