So I was trying to explain to a friend why I think this book is important for the generation of YA readers who may encounter it, thinking, much like Gilded Cage’s Abi does (and I did, tbh, when I first picked it up,) that it’ll be a romantic Upstairs/Downstairs sort of novel with magical powers, with dystopian overtones to give it all a frisson of Seriousness. And maybe I haven’t read enough dystopian YA, maybe I’m underestimating the average reader, maybe they’re smarter and more aware than I am. But reading that very first chapter where the reality of slavery comes crashing down on the very white, very middle class, very Anglo Hadley family, where all their hopeful expectations get violently trampled upon: my body reacted even more than my mind did, upset to my stomach at the horrific violation of their humanity, no matter how voluntarily they surrendered their rights. Because, despite being brown and politically aware (and oh my God, irrevocably middle-aged now with this last birthday,) the framework of my mind and life experiences are traditionally British schoolgirl, a vestige of my upbringing, and while I always knew and felt and believed that slavery was evil, it’s not often that the reminder of it acts like a punch to the gut. And that’s just in Chapter One!
In this alternate reality, the British monarchy was overthrown not by Roundheads but by people with magical abilities called Skill, who set themselves up as a ruling gentry called Equals. Everyone not an Equal must serve a ten-year term of slavery in order to keep the apparatus of economy going. Abi and Luke Hadley are teenagers who go into their slavedays with the rest of their family, thinking they’ve figured out a way to ride out their terms in relative comfort. Boy, are they in for a surprise! And so are we readers, as the book twists and turns both in plot and in emotion, presenting the complex realities of not only abolition but what it means to be an ally. I can’t overstate the importance of that last enough or, unfortunately, say much more without going into spoilers, but it was extremely refreshing to read, particularly in the current political climate.
I want this book to sell millions of copies because, much like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, it tells a very important story (tho, tbh, I did prefer that Vic James got to the point faster instead of waiting till a third book to explicitly state her central message, as Ms Collins did.) The only thing that stopped me from giving this book 5 stars on Goodreads was the writing itself, which could use a bit more polish. It serves to get the (very important) point across and tell an entertaining story, but it feels very often bare bones. I’m hoping Ms James builds on this terrific debut and am looking forward to reading more, of this series and of her writing in general, as she’s definitely got terrific narrative and ethical instincts, and only needs to work at the wordsmithing to be truly exceptional.