I'm always eager to read a debut novel, whether it's low fantasy, epic, cyberpunk, New Weird, steamboat horror, or hard science fiction. Whatever it is, I'll read it. It's comforting to me to go into a book not knowing any of the author's other work. Just me and the newly born work, nothing else to distort my view. It's hard to describe, but the experience is somewhat akin to taking a first vacation to anywhere new--there's so much excitement and eagerness, a marveling sense that somehow, as if somehow, I'm the first person to experience this adventure. Eh, you know, this whole vacation analogy isn't working as best as I'd like. Oh well. The Princes of the Golden Cage by Nathalie Mallet is a good time, even if the trip doesn't last very long.
The book opens as so:
I sat straight up in my bed. I knew someone was coming because my two insane brothers, Jafer and Mir, were screaming bloody murder.Here, the action starts and then never stops. The Princes of the Golden Cage is told from the perspective of the over-assuming Prince Amir, and he has every right to be worried. See, in the Sultan's palace, there's an isolated section called the Cage where all the Sultan's sons are kept. They're stored here to determine which prince will attain the highest ranking and become the named heir of Telfar. Because of this public competition, duels to the death and sinister betrayals are as common as jaws dropping (more on that later). So when Prince Amir is summoned to see which prince had died recently, all is right in his mind. But then it becomes clear that dark magic was involved, and it is up to him and his brother Prince Erik to discover the man behind the gruesome murders.
The Princes of the Golden Cage is a hodgepodge of genres: it's a fantasy, it's a mystery, it's a romance, and one could argue that it's a tale highly reminiscent of Arabian Nights. The country of Telfar presents itself as a majestic palace in a hump of sand. This is all Prince Amir has ever known and he longs for freedom, for the chance to leave the Cage and see as many different places as possible. But before that notion could even come close to happening he has to solve the mystery of his murdered brothers before he himself is killed.
Despite spending the entire novel inside the Palace, there's never a feeling of claustrophobia. This is thanks to Mallet and her brilliant pacing. As I mentioned before, the action starts on page one and never hits a snag. Immediately after discovering the puzzling situation of one of his brother's death Prince Amir is accused of playing a part in it. The whisperings talk of his time in his room reading books about magic and spells. Then he stumbles into a friendship/enemyship with Prince Erik, who is certainly more eager than Amir to figure out what is going on. A little after first meeting, Erik says:
"Not all your brothers have murder in mind. Many of us just want to survive the succession and leave the Cage...is that so hard to believe?"
Yes, for Prince Amir, it is. Darius and Ibrahim, the two highest ranking princes, are easily offended and ardent for the chance to kill off any that get in their way. Just about everyone Amir meets gives off the impression that they wouldn't mind seeing him dead, you know, if something was to happen, not that they'd ever do it. This helped build the mystery of the whole thing, making every character a suspect or at least dangerous enough to end Amir's life before he could figure it all out.
And there's a lot to figure out. Every chapter offers a clue, a little nibble of information. One more step closer for Prince Amir and company. The plot quickly moves from just some murdered brothers to intricate internal politics to she-demons and assassin-like efreets showing up to cause some trouble. There's even a bit of learned lineage to unveil. Characters go from good to bad to somewhat good to somewhat bad to maybe really evil to evil to good to maybe sort of a nice guy to....you get the drift. It works excellently, making me second-guess every person Prince Amir crossed, whether it was his own father, the love of his captive life, or the brothers next door.
Mallet's strengths plainly are her ability to weave a both complicated and satisfying mystery, action scenes (loved the dueling, reminding me a bit of Tanith Lee's earlier work), and pacing. All three of these add up to a quick book, not even looking at the fact that it comes in under 300 pages already. Something is always happening, and I predict readers will have a hard time just stopping at the end of a chapter. I did. Mallet isn't teasing anyone here, but merely offering a chance to see what terrible or immensely stupid situation Prince Amir will get himself into next. My two cents--just because the palace has a bunch of hidden tunnels doesn't mean one should take a princess down them and expect not to be caught.
But to be honest, not all is perfect. I found myself struggling every few pages with Mallet's writing. Clichés abound, it seemed that many of these were allowed to survive the cutting room floor: jaws dropped (I spotted at least seven happenings of this), princes stopped dead in their tracks (despite walking inside a palace where no tracks could really be made), and the hairs on the back of Prince Amir's neck stand up when danger is near (holy spider-sense, Spider-Man!). Characterization is done lightly on background characters. Prince Amir is the most three-dimensional of the cast, and by the end of the book his life is fairly clear. His mysterious and blonde brother Erik is a bit fuzzy, much like his motivations for helping Amir discover the who and how of the Cage's most recent murders, and there seemed to be an endless amount of opportunities for Amir to ask the tough questions and get the needed answers--but he never did. A couple of typos crept up, which makes me wonder if a steadier copyedit would have made an already good debut novel into a much more superior debut novel.
Still, The Princes of the Golden Cage is a lot of fun and a literal page-turner. All the hints and aptly placed twists culminate with an ending that is completely shocking while making sense in the run of things. I've even forgiven Mallet for making me start another series (boy am I tired of book one of something reads), but for what it's worth this is definitely a standalone adventure. Wholly intriguing and richly imagined, it's one of the better reads of 2007 that I've been lucky to enjoy. If I was to keep that nonsensical vacation analogy going I might say here that it was a good trip and that in the next few weeks to come I'll think back fondly of it and the times we had. Anyways, check out the first chapter for free over at her website and see if it's for you.