Cage the Darlings by Elora Bishop
Guest Review by Jill Sorenson
This is a difficult review to write. I don’t read much Fantasy, and this story didn’t make a big impression on me. It’s easier to review books with obvious strengths and weaknesses. For Cage the Darlings, I had to look hard to find the flaws that led me to put it down.
This fairy tale retelling opens with a young woman stealing a necklace from her latest conquest, a sleeping duchess. She introduces herself to the reader:
“Name’s Envy, and I’m all vice—just, strangely, not the one I was named for.”
Envy goes on to say:
“Here’s the thing: I’m not a bad person. I just have vices. Totally different, right?”
I felt conflicted about this story from the beginning. For the most part, the writing is lovely. The voice is modern and witty, with language that doesn’t always match the setting. I think the author made this choice on purpose, but I found it jarring.
After Envy leaves the duchess, she returns to the servant quarters with Belinda, her best friend. Belinda scolds Envy about her risky behavior. Envy’s goal is to bed and rob every lady in the castle. She has no reason for this, other than to challenge herself. Later that night, she sneaks out to the garden, gazes at the stars, and spies on a couple kissing. Envy feels bored and uneasy. Something is missing from her life.
I found Envy’s characterization uneven. She’s not “all vice,” not by a long shot. She likes pretty ladies and petty thievery, but she’s no jaded seductress.
Her motivations are murky, as well. She was born in the Vice Quarters, a slum where the poor often starve or freeze to death during the winter. Envy isn’t stealing to put food in the bellies of her loved ones, however. No, it’s just a lark.
Envy visits her friends in the Vice Quarters, but doesn’t bring any of the items she’s stolen. It’s clear that she feels bad for the poor. Why not help them, like Robin Hood? She doesn’t really steal for herself, either. She seems to want love, not wealth or security. From what I could gather, there is no upward mobility in this society. Envy can be a servant to the court…or starve in the streets. Why not stay in the warm, cozy castle? Because she takes jewelry from her lovers after sleeping with them, it follows logic that she would be suspected first. It’s hard to root for a character with such an ill-considered plan.
Predictably, Envy gets caught during her next tryst. When the king’s men search her room, they find her entire cache of poorly-hidden jewels. She’s banished to a Bran tower, a Rapunzel-like fortress deep in the woods.
The plot meanders on. Envy is stuck in a tower with no escape. A young woman materializes after a few days. Food and water appear at Envy’s bedside. Magic stuff happens and Envy falls in love with Merle, who is a blackbird by day.
My main criticism with this section is that Envy doesn’t *do* anything. She sleeps and waits around for bird-girl. There’s no action, no decision-making, and no romantic conflict. Envy doesn’t try to chip through stone or braid a rope out of her own hair. Merle is human at night, so they can spend time together. They practice magic (but no escape tricks). Merle doesn’t tell Envy about her bird status, and won’t say how she’s getting in and out of the tower. For a daredevil thief, Envy doesn’t come across as strong, brave or clever. She nicked the necklace off a sleeping duchess, but can’t catch sight of a bird flying in through the tower’s only window?
Around the midway point, Envy finds a rope by her bedside. Her friend, Belinda, comes looking for her. Envy climbs down from the tower. Belinda’s arrival and a change of scenery breathe some life back into the pages, but it’s too late. I have no interest in a romantic reunion between Envy and Merle. Although the prose is graceful and poetic, the dreamy characters and sluggish pace weren’t my cup of tea.