Book Review: The Princes of the Golden Cage by Natalie Mallet

76297Title: The Princes of the Golden Cage
Author: Nathalie Mallet
Genre: Fantasy, Mystery, Suspense, Romance
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publciation Date: September 5th 2007
Rating: 4 stars
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Review copy provided by the author.

Prince Amir lives in a lavish and beautiful cage. He lives in a palace with hundreds of his brothers, all barred by law from ever leaving the palace until he, or one of his brothers, becomes the next Sultan. Living under constant threat of death at the hands of his scheming brothers, Amir has chosen a life of solitude and study. His scholarly and alchemical pursuits bring him under suspicion when his brothers begin to die from seemingly supernatural means. Amir finds himself thrown together with his brother Erik, the son of a barbarian princess. Together they must discover the dark secret that is stalking the halls of their golden cage.

Who thought being of royal blood made life easy-peachy never met Prince Amir, his father the Sultan or the Golden Cage. To prevent war and bloodshed between his possible successors, the Sultan has built an enormous Golden Cage hosting all his possible heirs, the total number exceeding one hundred. Like it’s not enough to be locked into a cage – a luxurious cage, but a cage nevertheless – the Princes also look for whatever opportunity they can to murder each other. Why? Because their father is gravely ill, his time of death is nearing swiftly and the last man standing will without a doubt become the next Sultan. Although you have the ‘favorites’ like Ibrahim and Darius, sons of two different Sultanas and high in the succession rank who have their own share of followers, there are also Princes who prefer to stay hidden to save their own lives. Prince Amir is one of them. He is a studious recluse who keeps to himself in his own chambers with his private library, and who cares for his two mentally unstable brothers Jafar and Mir, because no one else bothers to. Amir has made it his life’s goal to blend in, to go unnoticed, so that nobody would mind him the time of day to kill him.

But unfortunately, Amir’s plan goes haywire when his brothers turn up dead in suspicious circumstances. Believe it or not, but they’re actually set rules of how one may kill one’s brothers within the Cage’s boundaries. Duels when one’s honor is breached are not uncommon, but cowardly murder attempts with poison are looked down upon and can actually lower one’s rank significantly. Although Amir at first suspects poison killed his brothers, he soon finds out that this might not be the case. When he goes to investigate the corpse of his first brother found dead in these mysterious circumstances, he notices an icy barrier surrounding the body. Amir can break through it eventually, but this ice barrier seems to have made his brother mummify rapidly. Because Amir is a man of science and not of magic, he goes through all his books only to find out that the solution might not be scientific after all.

Like foul and suspicious murders aren’t enough to worry about, Amir’s new friend – his brother Erik, who turns up out of nowhere and wants to investigate the murders as well – draws a lot of unwanted attention. Whereas Amir wants to remain hidden and unnoticed, whatever Erik does makes people notice him. It’s up to these two rather unlikely companions to try and stop whoever or whatever is murdering their brothers before it goes after them as well. But their unknown opponent isn’t the only one they should worry about. Their own brothers are their enemies and in this game where defeat equals death, they can’t trust anyone. Perhaps not even each other.

The Princes of the Golden Cage has an original and interesting premise. What’s interesting is that the built-up of the harem and the Golden Cage itself in this fictional book is largely based upon true harem hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire. For instance, Ottomanian Princes lived in a Golden Cage called kafes until they were either executed not to pose a threat to the Crown Prince, or until they became Sultan themselves. Although this system prevailed any civil war happening over the succession line, especially in a country where the ruler had not one wife but an entire harem to his disposition and supposed bastard-sons were seen as equal as sons he produced with one of his four wives, the four Sultanas (they ranked lower though, but where equally accepted as possible Sultans if higher-ranking ones failed to claim the title), the system definitely wasn’t flawless. These princes spent their entire childhood and teenage years being more terrified than anything, trapped in a Cage with death as the only possible escape. I loved how Nathalie Mallet used the real harem hierarchy in this book, with the Queen Mother as supreme harem overseer, then the four Sultanas and then the other concubines. The fact that a real Golden Cage much like the one described in the book ever existed is intriguing as well. May I, by the way, point out that traditions like harems and the likes existed not only in the Middle Ages, but well into the 20th century? Now that’s something to think about.

Enough with the history lesson, albeit interesting, and time to return back to the book. The Princes of the Golden Cage is told from the point of view of Prince Amir, which has an upside and a downside. The downside is that, as this is mostly a mystery and suspense novel, Amir gets half of the pieces he needs to solve the puzzle from conveniently eavesdropping at the right moment. I’m lenient enough to accept this can happen once, but I’ve actually encountered three of said occurrences in this book, and there might even be more that I missed. I’m pretty sure that in a place where trust is fairly non-existent, people wouldn’t just talk about conspiracies right around the corner. Amir also happens to be everywhere right at the exact time. I could believe this if he controlled an entire network of spies, but otherwise it’s rather unbelievable. Nevertheless, although the clue-dropping is random and not imaginative at all, that’s one of the only flaws I encountered in this book storywise. The characters are well-developed although Amir doesn’t always hit the ball right when he describes himself – but don’t we all? He claims he is studious and a loner, but in reality he’s neurotic, afraid to trust anyone, and perhaps even more paranoid than his mentally unstable brothers Jafar and Mir. He’s intelligent but apparently not intelligent enough to solve the mystery before I did. I think Darius’ way of thinking about Amir fits the way he acts towards others more properly than Amir’s own speculations on the matter. Albeit his flaws, which are mostly excusable by spending many years traumatized by constant dread and fear, he makes an interesting and even enjoyable main character.

In my opinion however, Amir is hardly the star of this book. Prince Erik transforms into the epitome of how one would want a Sultan to be the instant we meet him, and although his calm and confident presence brings out the best in Amir as well, that doesn’t make him the character I liked the best. In fact, Darius is. In my opinion, Darius is more qualified as a possible ruler than Amir or Erik, because he’s not afraid of change and he wants to see the best in everyone. He is convinced Amir thinks he’s better than him and therefore has a difficult time dealing with Amir. Darius transforms from a possible bad guy to one of the good guys halfway through this novel, which makes him the character who went through the greatest changes. As I already mentioned, Erik is sultan-material from the moment we meet him and his qualities neither increase nor decrease as the story progresses, but in Darius’ case we learn that Amir actually totally misjudged him.

Amir’s love interest is not that convincing. When Amir finds a locker holding the picture of a beautiful girl, he falls in love with her instantly. Oh, really? He has an entire harem at his disposal, with the most gorgeous and beautiful women of the entire country, and he falls for a mysterious foreign princess in the blink of an eye, without even knowing her personality? I find that hard to believe and actually pretty lame. One would think that a person who is so eager not to trust anyone at all, who weighs down every decision ten times before he actually makes it, would not fall in love head over heels. It just doesn’t fit Amir’s personality. I didn’t like Princess Eva that much either. She is a make-shift character who adds little or no depth to the story. Her personality is pretty generic. She is described as witty and funny and she loves to tease Amir, but it’s not that convincing. If he hadn’t loved her the moment he laid eyes upon her, I would have probably felt more for their relationship, because it would sound more believable.

Furthermore, there were some minor issues I had with this book. As you know by now, the main character is called Amir. One of his brothers is called Mir, another one Ibrahim. Erik’s servant is a young boy named Rami. A girl named Mira is also involved in the story. See what I’m talking about here? A little more creativity in the naming process of the main characters would be appreciated. Continuously using the name Amir or variations from it could work if characters appeared only once or twice and didn’t play a major part in the story, but if you’re talking about main and semi-main characters, the names should have differed more.

Well, I’m done mentioning the flaws of this book. Time to get ready for the good stuff. Although set in a fantasy world with its roots based on the Ottoman Empire, The Princes of the Golden Cage isn’t your standard fantasy novel, and I applaud it for that. This is not about some farmer boy going on a quest to save the world who ends up learning that he’s either the greatest magician the world has ever known or the Crown Prince who went missing twenty years ago. It’s not about fighting dragons, retrieving magical objects or saving the world. Originality is the key here. Prince Amir actually doesn’t care about being a Sultan or not – all he cares about is saving his own life, which is perfectly understandable of course. He’s more egotistical than we expect in a main character, but this suits him and his conditions perfectly. It’s this real, honest nature of his persona that makes him appealing and interesting as a character as well. He doesn’t care about saving the world – it’s not even necessary, no apocalyptic events for once – and he only cares about saving himself. Well, I say, good for him. The mystery part plays a giant role in this novel, once again making it stand out from the crowd. The mystery in itself is intriguing to say the least and the fact that magic might play a role in it makes it all the more interesting, especially since our main character is skeptic towards the existence of magic.

The feeling of dread, of having to watch over your shoulder and look for people trying to murder you, starts from page one and the tension builds up gradually throughout the book. Because it’s told from Amir’s point of view, the reader instantly relates with the unfortunate Prince and begins to feel the same tension and fear he is submitted to every day in this Cage of Death. Alliances are easily broken, friends are non-existent and death is around every corner. The setting is sublime, perfect for a murder mystery, and reminds me of some of the most classic murder mystery in which a family cannot leave an island/estate until the murderer is found, except that this happens on a much larger scale here.

I enjoyed reading The Princes of the Golden Cage. It’s fantasy with this wonderful layer on top of it, a layer filled with a murder mystery, some romance and the question how much family ties are really worth in a world where nobody is to be trusted. It searches for what drives people to kill their own kin only to save themselves and the effects of such circumstances on the human psyche. Prince Amir is an enjoyable character with a complicated but intriguing personality. The murder mystery is tense and exciting from the beginning and leads up to a most surprising conclusion. The book is well written and fluent, although there are some editing flaws here and there. I easily overlooked them, but if excellent grammar and spelling are your pet peeves, you might cringe occasionally. The story is enthralling and glues you to your chair from page one, making you feel for the characters and their unfortunate living circumstances almost instantly. If you’re a fan of fantasy but you’re in for something new, you definitely shouldn’t miss out on The Princes of the Golden Cage.

This book counts towards the Mystery and Suspense Challenge, TBR Reading Challenge and the Epic Fantasy Challenge.


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