‘Gilded Cage’ cleverly blends dystopian and fantasy tropes to create a gripping narrative that so perfectly captures the absurdity of contemporary political ‘reality’ it actually made me angry reading it at times. The idea is brilliantly simple: in a world analogous to ours, a minority of people with uncanny abilities called ‘Skills’ become the ruling class following a coup that replaced the English Civil War. Fast forward a few centuries and things are much as we recognise them despite the imposition of ‘slave days’, a mandatory ten-year term of unpaid labour by every one of the majority Unskilled.
The story follows an ordinary family as they are split up at the commencement of their slave days. The parents and two daughters go to Kyneston, country estate of the Jardines, the most powerful family in the country; the young son, Luke, is dispatched to Millmoor, a slave town in the north. Woven through the family’s attempts to get back together are the machinations of the children of the ruling class as they vie for power and deal with the restrictions of their own.
These restrictions are revealing; like our own power structures, those of the novel are patriarchal, wielded by entitled psychopaths whose daft names are a badge of arrogant pride. That said, the characters of the Bouda, a young Skilled woman determined at any cost to be the first female Chancellor, and the Hannibal Lecterish Silyen, whose weird and often grim supernatural experiments take the reader deep into the world of the Skilled, are the most compelling voices.
Bouda’s Machiavellian cunning and devastating verbal barbs mean she is always entertaining even when at her most horrible, which is most of the time. We care because she is so obviously more capable than many of the male characters around her, particularly her brutish fiancé, Gavar, who is next in line for the Chancellor job. Silyen meanwhile is wholly unknowable; an amoral but weirdly reliable explorer of the liminal spaces between life and death. His motives, plan and even loyalty are mysterious; it’s not even clear whether he is the antagonist he appears to be.
The Unskilled family are the focus of our sympathy, although they inevitably lack the intrigue of their despicable rulers. Luke’s experience in Millmoor is notionally Orwellian, although the society of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is horribly efficient, which Millmoor isn’t despite sharing Air Strip One’s very English sense of crapness. Instead of the unrelenting, bleak horror that wouldn’t sit well in this book, these sequences are more of a young adult adventure. Meanwhile, Luke’s older sister Abi, who has given up her place at medical school to get the family the supposedly easier slave day placement at Kyneston, finds herself falling for Jenner Jardine, middle son of her ‘owners’. On top of having Silyen and Gavar as siblings, Jenner is also without Skill, much to the embarrassment of his family.
The Skill magic system is as well thought-out as the novel’s fictional history. Far from the standard arm-waving/eye-glowing, it seems to rely on knowledge and character and is as subject to abuse, manipulation and downright theft as the political system that has grown around it. This latter element is a real strength, expressed though both believable family dynamics and dry but never bitter wit. For example, the Skilled refer to themselves as ‘Equals’, which is a bit like the 1% who own everything in our world portraying themselves via their loathsome newspapers as guardians of freedom. In both cases there is some truth to the claim, but it’s Doublethink: the Equals in the novel see themselves as equal only to each other (or at least pretend to), while the 1% are free of any sort of inconvenient accountability.
Meanwhile, the ten-year slave days are a piece of genuine – for which read practical – evil genius. After all, it’s not like a lifetime of servitude is it? And is ten years really so long? It’s only when you look at the fate of the gifted Abi, who will now presumably not be the doctor she should be, and little Daisy, who goes to Kyneston a child and will come out in her early twenties, that the stark reality of the situation becomes clear. Like the Hunger Games, this arrangement is a smokescreen for the fact that every Unskilled person in the country is a slave whether they are working slave days or not. Then of course there’s the advantage of a huge pool of free labour which, as in the case of the real British Empire, keeps everything ticking over nicely.
Fortunately, the author is too good a storyteller to lecture us on the obvious. People work the slave days to their advantage, for training in medicine and the military, while the Unskilled have a spokesperson in the Equal version of Parliament who, while representative, can be safely ignored. She is, after all, part of the system of genteel repression that is geared towards making her feel she is lucky to be there. As with all successful bullying, it works best when the person being bullied does the actual work.
Like a less psychopathic ‘A Game of Thrones’, the book examines a family as it shatters across a fantastic landscape; we want them to get back together, even though we know they probably won’t. There is generosity in the way the characters are presented; even the awful Gavar finds his true calling may well be as a father to his baby daughter. Such insights enable Vic James to create heart-stopping chapters with really great twists.