“Gilded Cage” by Vic James

Guys. Be proud of me. This review is of an ARC that isn’t LGBTQ+. Literally, it doesn’t even come under my ‘canon queer characters’ tag on Goodreads. I mean, in the general scheme of things that’s not necessarily a good thing, but I felt like I got 2017 off to a really queer start, and I realise that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. So here we are. This one’s for The Straights out there.

I requested this book from NetGalley, was approved for it… and promptly forgot about it for weeks, long enough that by the time I eventually picked it up I couldn’t remember why I wanted to read it in the first place. All I knew was that people on Twitter were raving about it, so that meant I had high expectations and yet absolutely no information.

It took me a while to get invested in the story, which was possibly because I’d dived straight in without even rereading the blurb. While I was intrigued by the worldbuilding and the concept of slaveyears (which my phone autocorrected to slavery ears when I reviewed it on Goodreads and now that’s all I can see), I took a while to warm up to any of the characters, possibly because of the changes in POV and because of how suddenly all the terrible things start happening to them.

To stick with the worldbuilding for a minute, I was intrigued to find that it was a British setting, and more than that, it was set in the North, which is rare. Despite this, it still acknowledge how its alt-history had shaped other places, including America. Unlike many fantasy versions of our world which seem very insulated and there’s no sense of a bigger picture, this gave us a fair few glimpses at it, while focusing on the local details.

I would have liked more detail about the skill / magic, since it seemed to vary hugely from person to person and it was hard to get a real sense of it. I felt like that might be elaborated upon in future books, though — it was adequately demonstrated, just not explained in much detail. There was a good balance of the history of the world without getting bogged down in the little details, though.

So, the characters. I thought it was an interesting decision to have some chapters from the point of view of very unpleasant chaacters, such as the Equal called Bouda. While it offered a different perspective on the plot, she was entirely unsympathetic — worthy of respect for her ambition, maybe, but not in the least bit likeable, due to her complete disdain for those she literally perceived as lesser beings.

In some ways, I think her POV made me care more about the other characters, especially those who would have seemed worse without her there to put them in perspective. That said, I didn’t enjoy reading her sections and tended to hurry through them, hoping they’d be over soon, so it was also a negative thing. Most of the others had some redeeming features, though they could be frustrating (either because of their bravery, their naivety, or just generally). And it was hard not to root for Luke, who seemed like a genuinely decent guy faced with an undeservedly crappy situation.

The plot wasn’t too twisting and complicated, but it wasn’t predictable, either — I followed it with relative ease, but didn’t find myself jumping ahead. I even kept track of who everybody was, even if I forgot their names as soon as I finished the book and had to look up Luke’s in order to review it (standard, tbh). Pretty good going for me, as a forgetful reader plagued with brain fog.

All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable read. The worldbuilding has a lot of potential, and I’ll be interested to see how the sequels pan out, since I’m assuming there are sequels. It just… lacked the certain spark, the key to whatever makes my particular bookish feelings unlock. I liked it, and it was a pleasant way to spend a tired evening. I might even recommend it to a few people.

But I’m not shouting about it from the rooftops with quite the fervour of the Twitter evangelists I’ve come across, and I guess that’s just a matter of personal taste.

Rating: ****

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