And at the end of that leash, crouched on all fours and naked, was a man.
One of the most enduring conceits of fantasy and sci-fi is that it imagines the reader to identify with the super-powered and/or magically talented characters; often over the ordinary humans. Mutants in X-Men are feared and hated by humans. Wizards in Harry Potter hide themselves from Muggles in fears of at best being bothered and at worst witch hunts. Vic James in the new YA novel Gilded Cage does something truly brave, yet perfectly obvious. Imagining a world where the magically gifted oppress everyone who doesn’t have it. In fact, it almost taunts our own fascination with the super powered in its depiction of commoners who side with the Skilled against their own kind…precisely because they think magic’s so ‘cool.’
In James’ alternate universe, Great Britain has long been ruled by an aristocracy of the Skilled, aka those who can do magic over commoners who can’t. Not only do the Skilled hold all economic and political power, they also require that all commoners give them ten years of service as well. Now it’s the turn for the Hadley family. Abigail, her younger sister Daisy, and their parents, have the comparative ‘fortune’ to be assigned as servants to the incredibly powerful Jardine family and their estate at Kyneston. Teenage brother, Luke, though, gets hauled off to the industrial town of Millmoor. All three siblings soon find themselves involved not only with the Skilled but with various conspiracies and political plots.
Gilded Cage is clearly intended to be the start of a new series and it sets up its universe wonderfully. James offers a fascinating alternate history, but shrewd social commentary as well and the outlines of a complex web of connections and plot threads for future volumes. Perhaps best of all, James surprises us by providing the viewpoints not only of the books obvious heroes – Abi, Luke, and Jenner Jardine, the only member of the Jardine family devoid of any magical skill – but for its villains as well. We see how thoroughly contemptible people see themselves and the world they live in and this forced identification gets to a key feature of Gilded Cage; that the incredible cruelties and injustices we see depicted on page are not just the result of a few bad apples but rottenness of the entire system. It’s a welcome new entry to YA that leaves the reader hungry for more.