In 'Gilded Cage', Vic James offers us an alternative version of modern Britain that I found grimly plausible. In James' Britain, everyone owes a decade of slavery to the magic-using elite that has ruled Britain since they executed Charles I in the seventeenth century. The elite, as well as having accumulated vast wealth through centuries of rule, each has the ability to use magic in ways that would allow any one of them to defeat an army.
Yet, their biggest achievement is in not having to use their power because they have convinced everyone that the status quo cannot and should not be changed. They have normalized slavery and made their role as rulers a fundamental part of national identity. They do this partly by letting people choose the decade in which they will serve out their slave days, partly by having humans manage the process of enslavement and the use of slaves and partly by presenting themselves as glamorous and admirable.
For me, what made this alternative Britain so plausible was that, if you take away the elite's use of magic, you're pretty close to how Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg believe England should be. Over the past ten years, we've seen a steady growth in the gap between the wealthy and the rest, a relentless erosion of the Parliamentary power and the installation of leaders who see themselves above the law. What Vic James has done is show how Modern Britain might be if the Tories had had the ability to use magic that made them virtually invulnerable and had had three hundred years to consolidate their position.
'Gilded Cage' is not a political polemic or a dystopia built to deliver a message. It's a tense thriller, built around people we are meant to like who are doing the best that they can. It's also a fascinating look into how creatures with this much power might treat each other.
The main characters, human and elite, who drive the plot of 'Gilded Cage' are under twenty. Their inexperience helps with the world-building. It also gives the book a Young Adult tone that dampened the rage I should have been feeling at these magical Tory Tyrants.
The world-building at the heart of the story is filtered through the experience of two families, a human family from Manchester entering their slave years together and the elite family on their estate in the South that most of them are assigned to serve. One of the human family serves in Milmore, a Northern industrial slave town, giving us a contrast between the different experiences of slavery.
'Gilded Cage' works as a thriller. There are personal and political intrigues within the elite and significant acts of rebellion by the humans and holding them all together is a larger design, hard to see at first, by the youngest son of the elite family to use his power to change the world, although not necessarily for the better.
It was an entertaining, sometimes exciting, sometimes grim read with an ending that worked but which also left me keen to read the next book in the trilogy.
I recommend the audiobook version of 'Gilded Cage'. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.