The Gilded Cage, by Vic James

Gilded Cage: A 2018 World Book Night Pick (The Dark Gifts Trilogy 1)

The Gilded Cage is a new novel by Vic James, and the first part of a new trilogy, and a very promising beginning to a new world of stories.

A revisionist take on history tells us of a world divided between the skilled, known as Equals, and everyone else. Those born without hereditary Skill are bound by law to serve ten years of their lives in service to the skilled, and these ten years are known as the slavedays. This metaphor for empowered nobility versus serfdom is the foundation upon which the story rests, and from which a more intricate tapestry is woven.

While the individual characters remain drawn in shades of fairly strict moral and ethical black and white, the pieces are mingled. Some slaves are quite nasty individuals and some Equals are strong moral characters. Of course, most of the pieces still land on the expected side of the chessboard but there’s enough ambiguity to keep things interesting.

The story is then told from the point of view of a family of five about to begin their slavedays. Trying to get it over with early on in their lives, the group manage, thanks to an enterprising elder sibling, to get assigned to an important family of Equals, thus dodging the unpleasantness of Millmoor, the slavetown on the outskirts of Manchester, where they live.

From here we are drawn into the politics and conflicts of an England more polarized by class than even your most staunch and radical socialist could have imagined, with individuals entitled by birthright dominating the rest of society in a way reality hasn’t seen since the Middle Ages.

But the politics are modern, and the intrigue is simple enough to understand without lessons in the politics of this alternate reality.

Vic James draws you into her world and its intrigues with skill and strong prose, and the result is amply rewarding.

My only regret is that by the end of the novel, despite the ordeals of the major characters and the events that have unfolded, nothing much has changed. A few unanswered questions and open threads lead clearly into the next novel, which I will no doubt anticipate with bated breath, but as far as this first novel is concerned, the characters have evolved, but their environment has not. A few Equals have had their political intrigue, but from the point of view of a commoner, the world remains much the same, and I was really hoping for a cliffhanger of epic proportions, rather than the very personal story that will form the beginning to the next novel.

For sure, their situation of our heroes is both complex and dire, but if we accept the founding premise of the book that the Equals have real power, rather than just some inherited noble title, then it will take events of much greater import than we have seen so far to change the structure of this world for the better. A hint at what those might be, rather than the vague shadows of possibility we have glimpsed, would have been welcome.

Doctor Strange

The last time I wrote a film review, I had just seen quite possibly one of the worst science fiction films of all time. I was close to despairing at the paucity of decent stuff coming out of Hollywood.

Moreover, although I didn’t review them, the latest Marvel and DC Comics offerings have, to my mind, been driven far more by Hollywood profits forecasts and a need to overcome a Godzilla threshold than by inspired or original storytelling (even if it’s with established characters). Just because it worked in the comics doesn’t make it a good story on the screen.

So Doctor Strange is more than a good film, it is a huge relief.

It would be too generous to say that the Hollywood profit motive was not present. The stunning special effects take took perhaps more share of mind when compared to the storytelling than would have been ideal, but that’s my biases showing. Not every film can be written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Also, to claim that this movie didn’t also suffer from a by-the-numbers Godzilla threshold trope (and I use “suffer” very deliberately) would be untrue, but it’s an Avengers film, and in this context, anything less than the end of the world does not a story make.

What we do have is a brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (nightmarish American accent notwithstanding) in a fully fleshed-out role, introducing us to a universe of magic and urban sorcery that does not rely on any of the existing Marvel franchise. In fact, other than two references in the entire movie, the rest of the Marvel universe stays politely in the toy box.

Doctor Stephen Strange is a man who, despite being roguishly lovable and appreciated by a number of his peers, is clearly so self-centered and imbued of his own ability as a surgeon that his world-view is entirely egocentric. Take a man at the pinnacle of achievement and arrogance and strip him of everything in a terrible accident. Watch him wither on the vine and, at the last moment before total self-destruction, provide him with a new path to which he is uniquely suited, and which he would never have found had he not been through the pain and self-annihilation of his recent experiences.

In search of a cure for his broken hands, he finds something else, a role as a member of a society protecting the earth from forces unknown. His photographic memory and talent for all things complicated make him ideally suited to the task of mastering sorcery, something which is learned and not given, practiced and not innate.

His discovery and growth in this new world coincides (obviously) with the manifestation of one of the greatest mystical threats ever to face the earth, and he finds himself in the thick of it before he is entirely ready. But we are never ready, as the Sorceror Supreme, played by Tilda Swinton, tells him.

An visual feast and a fun story to complement it, not to mention a wonderfully hammed up performance by Benedict Cumberbatch who appears to enjoy every moment of playing Doctor Strange, this is definitely a film to take its rightful place at the very summit of the Marvel franchise.

Unfortunately now they’re going to mix Strange with Iron Man and Thor because that’s what they have to do to justify putting a new, bigger Godzilla on the screen, and like fine wine, you can only go bigger, never backwards.