Luke is a prisoner, condemned for a murder he didn’t commit. Abi is a fugitive, desperate to free him before magic breaks his mind. But as the Jardines tighten their grip on a turbulent Britain, brother and sister face a fight greater than their own.
New alliances and old feuds will remake the nation, leaving Abi and Luke questioning everything – and everyone – they know. And as Silyen Jardine hungers for the forgotten Skill of the legendary Wonder King, the country’s darkest hour approaches. Freedom and knowledge both come at a cost. So who will pay the price?
‘Tarnished City’ is the middle book in ‘The Dark Gifts’ trilogy, set in an alternative Britain which has been governed for centuries by the Equals, a set of ruthless, magically-gifted families who wiped out the royal family and their nobles and established themselves as the ruling class. The Equals’ biggest achievement has been to normalise slavery. The widely accepted status quo requires that every non-magical person (almost all of the population) owes ten years of slavery to the Equals. The trilogy is a set of closely linked thrillers that show us this alternative Britain by following the lives of the adult children of two families whose lives have become closely linked and whose actions threaten the stability of the Equals’ rule. One is the Jardine family, the most prominent family of Equals and the other is a normal family serving out their slave days.
‘Tarnished City’ carries straight on from the explosive ending of ‘Gilded Cage’. I created a problem for myself by leaving a gap of almost two years between the two books (I hadn’t realised it had been that long. This is a series I wanted to read but you know how it is – too many books, too little time) so some of the details of the plot had faded in my memory and It took me a chapter or two to get back into the story. It wasn’t a big problem as Vic James quickly caught me up on everything but I won’t be leaving that kind of gap between the second and third books. Even so, once I got back into the dark flow of the story, I found it just as compelling as the first book.
The second book of any speculative fiction trilogy faces the dual problems that the world isn’t as fresh and unknown as in the first book and it isn’t going to resolve everything in the way that the third book will. The second book has to find a way of keeping the story moving, maintaining the tension, until it can deliver a significant milestone in the plot that raises the stakes for the players and sets up the situation the third book will have to resolve. I thought Vic James handled these second book problems really well.
She gave us something new by changing the settings for most of the action, taking us away from the Jardine Estate and the slave towns and moving us to a remote Scottish castle where magic is used to torture and torment mundane humans who have committed high-profile crimes against the Equals and taking us into the inside The House Of Light, the alternate Houses of Parliament from which the Equals govern.
She developed all of the main characters. The two mundanes are going through hell. Luke is locked away in a run by a sadist, populated with vicious criminals and organised so that the inmates inflict cruelty on one another. His sister, Abi, who wants to free Luke, is on a personal radicalisation path that leads her from ‘I want to get the best deal for my family’ to ‘things need to be fairer’ through ‘We have to protest’ to ‘We have to burn the Equals to the ground’. The three Jardine sons also change over the course of the book. I entered thinking that one of them was harmless and ineffectually nice, one was entitled, unhappy and ridden by dangerous fits of anger and the third was a magically gifted, murderous sociopath. All of those positions changed. The ‘nice’ son gained some power and reverted to class type, the angry son is waking up and considering what he can do about the sources of his unhappiness. The murderous sociopath remains a murderous sociopath but one with a complicated agenda, an insatiable curiosity and the potential completely to change what being an Equal means.
She also broadens the political picture, fills out more of the historical detail and deepens our understanding of how the magic of the Equals works and what it might be capable of.
She embeds all of this in four story strands: Luke’s life in the castle and how he might survive/escape it; Abi’s involvement with the resistance group that slides inexorably from protest, to sabotage, to terrorism intended to trigger rebellion; the power struggle within the Equals as the head of the Jardine family establishes himself as an autocrat and the strange and surprising agenda of our young and horribly gifted sociopath.
She pulls these strands together so that each increases the tension in the other and there is a constant sense of moving forward towards an unknown but large-scale change.
The thing I liked most about the book was that Vic James doesn’t demonise the Equals or lionise the mundanes. She shows them as people caught up in a situation not of their making. Some of them are very unpleasant. Some of them are what they are because they feel they have no choice and some, a very few, ask themselves who they should be and how they can become who they should be. Most of the sorrow and pain in this book comes from two things: the concentration of huge power in the hands of a small group who, over the generations, have come to believe themselves entitled to rule and the acceptance of slavery as a foundation stone of the social order. Without ever dropping into a polemic, Vic James shows us the way these two things rot the heart of a society. How institutionalising inequality and slavery diminishes the humanity of Equal and mundane.
I’m looking forward to the final book, ‘Bright Ruin’. Even the title sounds ominous.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Tarnished City’. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
Vic James lives in London’s Notting Hill, but her life is more action-adventure than rom-com
She studied History and English at Merton College, Oxford where Tolkien was once professor. Relocating to Rome, she completed her doctorate in the Vatican Secret Archives (they’re nothing like The Da Vinci Code), then spent five years living in Tokyo as a Daiwa Scholar. There she learned Japanese and worked as a journalist.
Vic has scuba-dived on Easter Island, camped at Everest Base Camp, voyaged on one of the last mailboats to St Helena, frolicked with sea-lions in the Galapagos, slept in a shipping container in the Falklands, driven a dog-sled in the Arctic, hang-glided across Rio de Janeiro, and swum the Hellespont from Europe to Asia.
But there’s still little she loves more than lying in bed till midday with a good book and a supply of her favourite biscuits.