⚠ This review contains spoilers! ⚠
I received this ARC through my workplace. It will be published on February 14, 2017, Del Rey, and is the first book in the planned Dark Gifts series.
In modern day Britain there are two classes of people: the Equals, and everyone else. The Equals are, much like their predecessors the “Peers” of the realm, the wealthy ruling aristocracy, who used their magical Skill to end the monarchy and establish a new world. Everyone else- the commoners lacking magical ability- lead largely normal lives: they go to school, get jobs, get married, have kids. Mostly. Before a person can be considered a true citizen, with the right to travel and own property, they must first complete their slave days, a ten year stint of labor without pay or rights.
The Hadley family begins their slave days just after their youngest daughter turns 10, the youngest age one can legally complete their slave days (as long as they’re with their parents). The eldest daughter has made arrangements for the family to serve at the estate of a family of Equals, something considered a fairly cushy job, but at the last minute things go awry and the middle child, a son, is separated from his family and sent to a labor camp/factory where industrial accidents are common and the life is brutal. Things grow complicated as the son gets involved in illegal, underground work at the factory camp, the eldest daughter falls for one of the Equal sons, the Equal father plans a deft political move to oust his replacement and regain his old position, and all three of the Equal sons have motives and plans of their own.
The story is told from a handful of perspectives, moving among them with no particular rhyme or reason. Unlike what I’ve seen with other dystopian fantasies, we spend as much time in the heads of the privileged as that of the oppressed, but ultimately I don’t feel that the narration choices were as strong as they could have been. The characters chosen didn’t necessarily contribute usefully to our understanding of the plot or the world, and I think if they’d been narrowed down and refocused we could have had a strong core of characters serving as foils to each other. Instead we get glimpses of perspectives here and there that highlight various scenes but don’t create a cohesive whole.
The world was difficult for me to get into. There are some really neat points- the existence of the Skilled is a worldwide phenomenon and different nations have had different reactions. In the US, for example, the Skilled and their right (or lack thereof) to enslave commoners appears to have been the motivator of the Civil War, and it ended with the Union States of America considering the Skilled an aberration and the Confederate States of America apparently continuing a system of slavery similar to that utilized in Britain. The Skill, as it is called, is never explicitly defined; one Equal character comments that asking another Equal about their Skill and its strength is like asking them how much money they have in the bank- it’s just not done. Some Equals display little Skill and appear to use it rarely, while others have immense control and ability and use it prolifically. But it never felt immersive enough to be real. I think part of that was because we got only a little glimpse of how people could live with the reality of serving ten years of potentially life-ending slavery in their day to day lives- we meet the Hadley family just before they begin their slave days and so we get only the intense contrast of slavery and luxury, which gives a kind of skewed idea that the entire nation lives in one or the other all the time, when the reality is supposed to be that most people in the nation aren’t serving their slave days at any given point. There is no perspective of the “real world” trying to (and probably mostly succeeding, as human nature is what it is) ignore the problems of their world when it’s not directly impacting their day to day life. The world feels unfinished, and I spent a lot of time during this novel feeling like I was reading a submission manuscript as opposed to the final, edited version that’s ready for print.
Abi, the eldest daughter, is easily my least favorite POV character. She is introduced as being a fan of bodice rippers focused on hot Equal guys falling in love with common girls, and then at the estate she goes and develops a thing for one of the three Equal sons she works for. The whole thing is just formulaic, and the only redeeming factor there is that there isn’t a love triangle.
Bouda’s ruthless ambition is marginally more interesting, but it’d be nice to see an ambitious, political female character that isn’t cold and apparently heartless. I’d love to see someone human, who struggles with their conscience and their ambition, fighting for what they believe in and still having to make concessions and compromises to get there.
Luke, the son sent to the factory, is an interesting character. He’s very Hufflepuff, really- a deeply trusting individual who instinctively wants to do what’s right and protect people from harm. His increasing involvement in revolutionary activity feels like a natural progression of behavior, and I love his friendship with Renie (Rhymes-With-Genie). I wish we saw more of them, and Renie in general. I think he could have been utilized better in the later half of the book- he feels impotent as a character once he arrives on the estate, and my reaction to the ending and his role in it was just kind of “meh”.
Silyen, the youngest Equal son, is probably the best character in the book. His motives are never clear; it’s almost impossible to tell whether his choices are whims or carefully constructed machinations, or some combination thereof. His loyalty is only definitively to himself, and I feel confident in saying that he could betray literally any character in the book and I wouldn’t be surprised. More than anything else in the book, I want to know his motivations, and even more his goals.
The end of the book is the most frustrating part, as neither the main plot nor any of the subplots have been resolved. This, I think, is where the book ultimately fails: it cannot stand on its own, which I think is one of the worst things a first novel in a series can do to itself. There is no sense of closure, no questions answered, and really very little hint at what might be coming in the next book. When the series is all said and done, it’s possible that my opinion of the book might be more charitable once I can read through the whole thing and find some sense of completion. As it is, however, I can’t recommend this book by itself and I’m not sure I will bother with the next book of the series, given my frustrations with this one.