Abigail and her brother, Luke, live in a contemporary world that is split into two classes: the Skilled and everyone else. Being Skilled is having incomprehensible powers, ruling the unskilled and generally being arrogant. There had been a point in history when the Skilled rose up and deposed the ruling government, taking over the country this being Britain. They then imposed a slave class upon the rest of the populace…in a fashion. Every citizen is required to serve ten years of their life as a slave. They have only the choice of when. There is a reward at the end of the service if they survive of having a higher status in society.
In the first book, The Gilded Cage, Abigail’s and Luke’s parents had decided that their whole family will serve together; including their little sister, Daisy, who just turned ten. Ten years of age being the youngest that can serve, while accompanied by parents. Abigail had a plan: she had negotiated that her whole family will serve on one of the enormous Skilled estates rather than the dangerous drudgery of the industrialized city of Millmoor. They would live in the lap of luxury and only be expected to serve the Skilled family; escaping the horrors of Millmoor. Abigail was ignorant of the horrors and dangers hiding behind good manners and expensive clothes. But her plan fell apart when the Skilled family decided they had no use for a teenaged boy so Luke is brutally separated and sent to Millmoor. And Luke had to negotiate the pitfalls of Millmoor alone, until he met a young girl who taught him about rebellion.
At the end of the first book, Luke was framed for a murder by someone who used their Skill to cause Luke to kill a high-ranking Skilled. He was given into the custody of Lord Crovan, a Skilled to whom all high-profile criminals were given. Crovan’s estate was escape-proof and no one held him accountable if all his charges didn’t survive their incarceration. Crovan enjoyed the opportunities to manipulate memories and torture his captives. Abi and Jenner, along with Skilled abolitionists, plot to find a way to rescue Luke and establish his innocence.
In the meantime, Silyan is experimenting with “sharing” Skill and trying to understand why some, like his brother Jenner, have none and he has an enormous share. Bouda, a Skilled, is also experimenting; both with political machinations and her own Skill. She learns, to her chagrin, that wanting and having power are quite different. And both she and Silyan learn that the Skilled are much more powerful than they even suspect and the power was forgotten when Slave Days were implemented. What this will mean to the story will probably continue in the next book.
I’m not sure if the books are intended as adult fiction or YA; they read more like YA, in my opinion. The characters are simple and shallow; the only one of real interest is Silyan and he isn’t used for maximum effect. The horror at the end doesn’t achieve a visceral effect and falls a bit short in expectation. There wasn’t sufficient build-up to convince me that the endangered protagonist was ever in any real peril. And there is a cliff-hangar to drag one towards the next book. I hope this ends at three books. As a YA author, I think Ms. James will do well. If she intends to write adult fiction, she needs to up her game. Adult fiction benefits from more complex plot threads and conflicted characters; both of which were sadly lacking here. ~~ Catherine Book
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