A next entry in the darkly fantastical series that began with Gilded Cage finds the brother-and-sister revolutionaries confronting the possible failure of their efforts to end lower-class forced servitude at the same time the mysterious young aristocrat reveals the incredible extent of his dark gifts.
Vic James is the author of Gilded Cage, an early draft of which won a major online award from Wattpad for most-talked-about fantasy. A current-affairs TV director who loves stories in all their forms, she has covered the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Britain’s EU referendum for BBC1 and has twice judged The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. She has lived in Rome and Tokyo, and currently lives in London.
"Your allies aren't always who you think they are-and neither are your enemies." This is the lesson learned in the second installment of the Dark Gifts trilogy, by James. Tarnished City picks up immediately after the ending of Gilded Cage (2017), the first installment, with Luke Hadley being Condemned after being convicted of a crime he didn't commit. When Luke is sent off to the deadly Condemned prison Eilean Dochais, his sister, Abi, becomes a fugitive in an effort to save him. Forming an alliance with Skilled sympathetic to the Unskilled and their plight, Abi and her crew attempt to bust Luke out. But nothing goes according to plan, and when Abi turns to the one person she trusts, their betrayal has deadly consequences. Told from a variety of both Skilled and Unskilled perspectives, this is an exciting sophomore effort by James. Full of political intrigue and a unique (if not quite fully fleshed out) magic system, the Dark Gifts trilogy will appeal to fans of Samantha Shannon's the Bone Season. Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.
They came for Luke that night.
At that morning’s farce of a trial, Luke had been found guilty of a crime he couldn’t remember but was certain he hadn’t committed. Then Gavar Jardine had dragged him from Kyneston’s East Wing. He’d slung him in here, a small chamber beneath the kitchens.
It was stone-walled, chilly, and unlit. Groping around in the darkness had identified only a thick wooden counter and some empty barrels. The air had a musty sourness that seeped into your skin. Kyneston wasn’t the sort of place to have dungeons, and besides, the Jardines didn’t need to lock people up to restrain them. So this must be part of the wine cellars.
Which meant that close by, life was going on as normal. And Kyneston was still full of hundreds of Equals. So much had happened since the ball where Chancellor Zelston had died: the East Wing’s annihilation and restoration, his own trial, Crovan’s Skillful fight with Jackson and its catastrophic end. The Equals would doubtless linger at the Jardine estate to pick over it all. Slaves would be up and down to the kitchens and cellars regularly, too.
One of them would have keys to this room. Or could get word to Abi, who could surely find some.
So Luke had spent the next few hours banging on the door to attract attention. When his fists became sore, he kicked it instead—though he knew better than to imagine he might kick it down. He shouted until he was hoarse, then rested his voice and redoubled his pummeling, before shouting some more.
But not even this physical commotion was as exhausting as the confusion in his brain. In whatever direction Luke turned his thoughts, he ran into the same dead ends of incomprehension and ignorance.
Someone had killed Zelston, and it had to be Luke himself. But only the deed was his. Not the intention.
Doc Jackson had defended him. Yet Jackson was an aristocrat, an Equal, and so had also deceived and betrayed him. Luke’s memories of the past twenty-four hours were a maze in which he wandered, utterly lost.
As the day wore on and no one came, Luke sagged against the door, drained. Eventually he must have fallen asleep slumped against it. When he woke, it was because the door had been opened from the outside, causing him to spill forward over the boots of someone on the threshold. The person’s identity was hard to make out, thanks to the dazzle of a star-bright light cupped in one hand.
“I’m not the rescue party,” said Silyen Jardine. “Sorry.”
Get up, some tiny voice in Luke’s skull urged him. Run.
But he was shattered, and no part of him obeyed, neither his leaden legs nor his bruised hands. Luke opened his mouth, but only a croak emerged. The Young Master screwed up his face and slid his feet out from under Luke’s huddled body.
The Equal folded his fingers and extinguished the light. The next thing Luke knew, Silyen was crouched over him in the darkness, one hand curled in the collar of his now filthy white shirt, the other pressed against his temples. Luke shuddered at the touch. When the Equals were done hurting you on the outside, they could always hurt you some more on the inside.
But there wasn’t any pain.
“I have questions,” Silyen whispered. “And right now, you’re the best chance I have of finding answers.”
The Equal’s cool fingers trailed down the side of Luke’s face. When he gripped Luke’s jaw, for a mad moment Luke thought the boy was going to bend down and kiss him. But it was more intimate and far worse than that. Something inside him writhed and leapt at the Equal’s touch.
And Silyen must have felt it, too, because that creepily radiant smile lit his face as if he’d conjured back his Skill-light. His hand moved down to Luke’s neck, and Luke’s pulse throbbed beneath the pressure of Silyen’s calloused fingers, as if it might burst and spray them both with bright arterial blood.
An image came unbidden into his head: Jackson on all fours in front of the Parliament of Equals, pure light exploding from every pore as Crovan triumphed. Luke closed his eyes against the unbearable memory. But Silyen was so close that Luke couldn’t avoid the feather-trace of his breath as he spoke.
“If you don’t try to escape,” Silyen Jardine murmured, “I won’t let him break you. Not beyond repair.”
Then the hand disappeared and Luke heard himself groan with relief. He opened his eyes to see Silyen brushing the knees of his jeans as he stood up.
“He’s fit for travel,” Silyen announced, with his usual brisk carelessness. He was addressing someone who waited farther along the dim passageway. “I’ll undo Kyneston’s binding at the gate so he’s all yours. Come on, Luke. Don’t keep your new master waiting.”
The boy offered a slender hand to Luke, who stared at it, then turned away and grabbed the doorframe for support. Luke wasn’t entirely playacting as he labored to pull himself upright, but it gave him a few precious seconds to think.
He had just worked it out when the person waiting at the end of the corridor lifted a Skill-light of his own and confirmed the deduction. Lord Crovan stood there, looking just as he had when Luke had taken his bag in Kyneston’s Great Hall only a few nights earlier. His overcoat was already buttoned. Fit for travel.
In just a night and a day, Luke had become a murderer, a defendant, and now a prisoner. In the uproar after Jackson’s duel with this man in a bid to defend him, Luke had barely heard Lord Jardine utter the word that sentenced him. But he remembered it now: Condemned.
Condemned and passed into the custody of Lord Arailt Crovan, for transportation to the man’s estate of Eilean Dòchais, in Scotland. No word spoken of any release. No word of any review of that sentence. You could almost hear the sound of a thrown-away key rattling down a deep well.
Luke couldn’t allow Crovan to interrogate him. The man’s Skill would discover Luke’s memories of the club, and put his Millmoor friends in danger.
Yet Luke needed to know what had really happened at the ball, to clear his name. Not just for his own sake, but for his family’s, too.
“My sisters,” he said urgently, turning to Silyen. “Are they okay? My parents?”
“Going to Millmoor,” Silyen replied. “Safest place for them, in the circumstances.”
Luke felt winded all over again. Now that he knew what the Equals were capable of, the thought of his family far away from them was a relief. But he knew firsthand the horrors of Millmoor: the risky work, the casual brutality and injustice, the way Daisy’s education and perhaps even her growth would be stunted in that pitiless place.
“Oh,” Silyen added. “The little one stays here. Gavar’s special request.”
Daisy was staying at Kyneston?
But Luke was out of time for more questions. Crovan paced down the passageway and stopped in front of Luke, eyeing him with faint distaste.
“Why the delay? I wish to be gone before the rabble wakes to yet another day of gossip and gluttony. You’re mine now, boy. Come with me.”
Luke bit his lip and followed the man as he led the way back through the dim corridors of the great house. It would be madness to try to run. Even if he escaped Crovan and Silyen—which was unlikely—there was no way past Kyneston’s wall. He’d be reduced to hiding in the grounds. Perhaps hunting him down would provide the Equals with a day’s sport. Kyneston’s stables certainly held dogs and horses enough for that, and the Master of Hounds would doubtless enjoy it.
No, the time for escape would be while they were en route. The drive to Scotland would take all day. Surely there would be stops along the way. His brain unhelpfully supplied images of Crovan striding into a motorway service station calling imperiously for coffee. That would certainly cause a diversion.
Don’t try to escape, Silyen had told him. Well, Luke didn’t plan to start following life advice from Silyen Jardine anytime soon.
The rest of what Silyen had said made little sense. The Young Master had questions—presumably to do with Crovan—whose answers Luke would somehow help him obtain? It was a shame he hadn’t told Luke what the questions were, then.
They were at the kitchen door of the great house now. The one used for deliveries, from which, just a few days earlier, Luke had imagined he might smuggle himself into a vehicle and escape back to his friends in Millmoor. Back to the Doc and Angel. The betrayal he’d felt at learning their true identities still gnawed at the core of him.
A slave opened the kitchen entrance at their approach, and a draft enveloped the three of them as they stepped out into the night. Luke shivered from more than merely the chill. At Crovan’s castle, he might be in a cell. Always cold, always in darkness. There might be a time he looked back fondly on his night in Kyneston’s cellar.
But no. If he thought like that, he would be a prisoner in mind as well as body. Broken and afraid. He was going to get out of this. He had to.
Outside, another slave held open the door of a gleaming vehicle. Its engine was purring and Crovan was already getting in the other side. A third slave held the bridle of Silyen’s tall black horse, and the Young Master swung lightly up into the saddle as the beast pawed and snorted.
“Get in,” snapped Crovan’s voice from the car’s interior.
“Please tell my family I love them,” Luke blurted to the slave holding the door. “Tell them I’m sorry and I’ll see them again.”
The woman stared ahead impassively. If she’d heard him, she gave no sign. Luke’s resentment flared, before he checked himself. It was fear of the Equals that cowed people like this. Jackson had taught him that.
Jackson. Who was himself an Equal.
Luke wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to forgive him.
“Please,” Luke begged the woman one more time, before ducking his head and getting into the car.
The vehicle didn’t use its headlights; instead Silyen rode in front, casting a gentle glow of Skill-light. Luke craned his head to look back at the great house. Even in near-darkness, Kyneston was majestic. Light glowed along the parapet and silhouetted the bell in the bright cupola. A few windows were still illuminated.
But Luke’s eyes were irresistibly drawn to the golden light that writhed and pulsed along the ironwork skeleton of the vast East Wing. Luke had stood in it as it exploded, then just twelve hours later he had stood in it again for his trial. That impossible restoration had been Silyen Jardine’s handiwork.
And the Equal’s words in the cellar came back to him. The ones Luke had pushed away and tried not to think about. I won’t let him break you. Not beyond repair. A promise, of sorts. But also a threat. Repair. But before it—breaking.