Writing a review for The Cage presents a unique challenge: the story, like the characters and pacing, was a frustrating mix of good and bad. Characters were so unlikeable as to be irredeemable (even as antiheroes) and a love triangle including an alien jailor lamentable. It felt as if this should have been a good book but the wrong choices were made by the author consistently throughout.
Story: 5 teens wake up in a strange place. As they meet and begin to explore, it is clear they are in some kind of unnatural habitat – and are being watched. The inhabitants are: Cora (a girl with politician father and troubled past), Lucky (born into a blue collar family and son of a military vet), Rolf (Norwegian scientific genius), Nok (Thai girl sold into slavery in London as a ‘model’), and Leon (New Zealander Maori from a mob type family). Each is supposed to have certain ‘gifts’ (e.g., strength, intelligence, beauty) and soon they discover they are part of a ‘zoo’ on an alien ship. They are paired to each other (Leon’s partner died while trying to escape) and are told by their ‘caretaker’ alien they have to procreate. While Cora fights her incarceration and wants to escape, the others don’t mind their pleasant cage and change from less than ideal lives on Earth. But Cora’s fighting may just endanger all of them if the Warden gets tired of Cora’s defiance and ends them all.
Admittedly, it all went south for me when Cora wakes up and remembers her dream of a beautiful, angelic like alien creature carrying her before she ended up in the zoo. She then spends the rest of the book cooing over her captor and trying to resist kissing him (all the while being attracted to Lucky, her partner teen, and deciding whether or not kissing him would mean she wasn’t defiant enough). Problematic for me: a) where would Cora escape to if she is on a ship?? Especially since she’s told that the rest of the ship’s inhabitants treat the humans like meals or slaves?) and b) the Caretaker is an alien, looks like an alien, and has imprisoned her. Why is she attracted to it? Instead of admiring his manly physique (well, ok, she does that as well), now we have to get a teen mooning over his ‘pleasing sensations’. Ugh.
It’s hard to respect a character like Cora when she never makes any intelligent decisions or is mooning over an alien (this isn’t a Stockholm Syndrome since that kind of obsession has to take place over time – not with insta-luv). But the other characters, though they are all given full backstories and even POVs, are just as unlikeable. Leon is an oaf and mopey, Lucky is the ‘too good to be true’ guy madly in love (of course) with Cora, Nok is manipulative and seduces the guys in order to protect herself, and a character added later, Mali, is sullen and withdrawn but very knowledgeable about the aliens and their cruelty outside the shelter (Hello, Cora?) yet no one ever spends time questioning her to find out more about their captivity.
The author does try hard to give us nuanced characters and explain why they do the stupid actions that make them so unlikeable (Cora’s imprisonment in Juvie, Nok’s indenturer teaching her how to use men, Rolf’s being bullied constantly, etc.). Yet despite the attempts at nuanced writing, they all seem so flat. Giving them POVs didn’t help us understand them more, it just fractured the story more. E.g., if you are going to place doubt that one of them is a mole for the aliens, then don’t give everyone a POV and not bother to pretend one may be an unreliable narrator. This would have been a much better novel with one strong POV (Lucky’s for example). But I fear Cora’s actions are so stupid that Lucky’s insta luv would have been completely baffling.
If the ill conceived romance with the ‘angelic’ alien had been jettisoned, I’d have liked the book a bit better. Twists at the end made the supposedly superior intellect aliens seem as brilliant as my cat chasing a laser pen dot and left a cliffhanger. It was a shame because it all ended up feeling overthought and underwritten at the same time. Together, I felt underwhelmed reading the story. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.