Series: Dark Gifts #1
Published by Del Rey Books on February 14th 2017
Source: Publisher, Netgalley
Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian, Fantasy & Magic, Romance
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Not all are free. Not all are equal. Not all will be saved.
Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England's grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.
A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.
Abi is a servant to England's most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family's secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price?
A boy dreams of revolution.
Abi's brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.
And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.
He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?
You know what’s worse than intense dislike for a book? Intense apathy.
I’m a weak reader for rebels and revolution, but unfortunately Gilded Cage fall under the “miss” category for me. With all those high ratings and wonderful feedback, I hope my review will share a bit of information that you won’t find in the other reviews, and ultimately getting a more holistic view of the book. Without further ado, here are some reasons why this book almost made me DNF halfway through.
This book is compared to Red Queen, and other than my ratings for them (both 2 stars), another similarity is the magical dystopian setting. While Red Queen’s was harder to notice the whole “dystopian” feel, Gilded Cage began with a really modern atmosphere. We see the everyday life of Luke Hadley with friends, playing soccer, and his sister Abi heading to university even, until his family tells him that they’re enlisting in the 10-year slavedays, which every Commoner is subjected to.
“‘You are now chattels of the state… that means you are no longer ‘people’ and have no rights at all. At. All.’”
The story essentially revolves around two families and their worlds colliding: the Hadleys, who become the slaves of the other family, and the Jardines, a prominent Equal family who holds important seats in the governing of the country, modern-day England. Equals rule the republic in a Parliament with a head Chancellor. James does a pretty fine job with the history of how the whole government came to be, as the Equal overthrew the last monarch with the powers – called Skill. Only Equals have Skills, which are magical properties that are wholly unexplored in the book and are left as vague as the technology in the world. There is only a small thought that wonders if lineage is all that defines Skills, especially as one of the Jardine brothers, Jenner, does not have Skill, but other than that it remains a central, unexplained part of the plot. Additionally, it was annoying to not know the extent of their powers. They can control minds. They can blow things up. Was each person’s different? Was there a limit they could use? Were there any consequences, physically or mentally, when used? For a society so set on the importance of having Skills (and the seduction and envy of not having them), it really is not explained enough beyond the fact that they’re essentially magical “abilities.”
Furthermore, this is supposed to be modern time (I’m assuming from the descriptions) but the world-building was exceptionally weak and an utter disappointment. I actually adore world-building in my books, which was why this stuck out for me. Think of it like an alternate universe of our world, but with the addition of Skills/Equals and some minor changes in country (like the US being split between the Union and Confederate States). That kind of world is A-OK with me, but it’s also good to differentiate what’s similar and what’s not. First of all, it is said that news “travels” and that the Internet exists. If that is so, why are there not phones in the world? Why don’t the characters communicate with technology, search things up, have a TV, or do anything with plugging things in? If there is a job involving the Internet (which a former police officer character did), why don’t the dang characters freaking Google any potential weaknesses? If there are such things as universities (as one of the characters got accepted to), why don’t they rally up against such things as slavedays? I’m so utterly confused at how ignorant this whole society is. Like fool, if there was Internet connection why aren’t you publicizing this mess?
Anyways, back to the plot, which was pretty solid. So the book travels between many POV’s of the characters, and all of them are entangled with the other in some way. You can’t really pinpoint a specific protagonist or antagonist per se, but they’re all important to the story. While Abi and her family are essentially slaves to the Jardine family, Luke is taken to a factory town where he becomes embroiled with a club with radical ideas on how Equals should treat other people. That was pretty much the only part of the book I enjoyed. Abi is falling in love with one of the sympathetic Jardine brothers, Jenner, while Daisy (the youngest Hadley sister) is charged with taking care of the oldest Jardine brother’s bastard daughter. The pacing of the story is very odd, as it’ll go through months within a chapter and skip chapters of planning and movement.
“He’d always enjoyed games.
This one was worth playing.”
This odd pacing must also have stemmed from the author’s writing, which was fine on all accounts but made me especially disinterested about the characters. Remember what I said about apathy? I couldn’t connect to any of the characters, which is extremely surprising considering the fact that the chapters are written from first person POV’s, which should make it easier to empathize with them. Unfortunately, that was not the case and even the most monumental events made me incredibly wary and bored. An act of rebellion that would stem a few chapters was also the same length as a character talking about how much she disliked slaves and couldn’t wait to do nefarious plots in politics. There were also several romances that were cold, so cold I almost froze up. They were unfounded, had no basis, and very minimal. Okay, so I’m good with minimal amounts of romance but in this case, I think it would have been better if there were no romances at all. I couldn’t get into any of the ships, nor the characters’ rationales behind them. It’s like the author was like, “Oh, I want to add some romance! But only use up like three lines most because who needs relationship development.” And let me tell you, for a girl on track to medical school, Abigail was an extremely dense character.
The only character that stood out from the whole cast – from the volatile Garver to the cunning Jackson – was the youngest Jardine brother, Sil, who was extremely overpowered and mysterious. His moves will really drive the plot in the upcoming books (as he did with this one) as he basically conducts things behind the scenes throughout it all. The club of rebels really had promise, but the author never really explores them fully. I was considering quitting at the 50% mark because it really didn’t seem like the plot would progress much after that, and I was right. How can you hype up a rebellion when the opposing side is too overpowered to even see a little hope? James’s writing never gave readers a glimpse of that hope – even with some successful actions – which drew me even more away from the book. There’s a difference between “being at the bottom and rising from it all” and “being at the bottom, so low that the only way this could work is a deus ex machina-like plot device that changes the game,” which will no doubt happen. I’m pretty sure I’ve predicted the ending of this trilogy, and if not I still am too apathetic to even bother continuing it.
I can see why this book holds appeal to many readers, but I am a stalwart defender of world-building and explanations. Many YA writers fail to grasp their own world, which can be expressed through their writing as readers like me can poke holes through it. While some readers will be perfectly fine with this weak exploration, my rational brain was disenchanted. The romances were left better off out of the story, and I’m kind of sad I never really connected to the characters. However, they were a level above cardboard cutouts, certainly. From the high ratings of other people, I’d suggest fans of rebellion and schisms in society to check this one out. Maybe if you liked Red Queen, too. If you like actual magic, then skip this one. If you place world-building high on your reasons to read books, don’t even bother. If you like plots that take up one sentence to basically explain despite having a thick book, this one may be for you. If you want to know what the fuss is all about, like I did, then please be my guest!
Rating: 2 out of 5
Thank you Penguin Random House and Netgalley for the review copy!