Nathalie Mallet, The Princes of the Golden Cage [Library of Babel]

Back in August, somebody from Night Shade Books contacted me and asked if I would like a review copy of the forthcoming book by Nathalie Mallet, The Princes of the Golden Cage. I almost never turn down free books, so I said yes (actually, both Kate and I were contacted, and she replied first, so we just got the one copy sent to her). I then proceeded to spend two months not gettingaround to reading it, despite carrying it to Japan and back.

The book is a quasi-Arabian fantasy novel, set in the "Golden Cage," the palace where the adult sons of the Sultan of Telfar are kept in luxurious confinement until it's time for one of them to assume the throne. They're constantly being evaluated for their fitness to rule, and encouraged to scheme and plot against one another in order to thin out their ranks a little.

The protagonist and narrator is Prince Amir, one of the two-hundred-odd princes in the Cage, and a peaceful and scholarly fellow who has no real ambition to take the throne, but who hopes only to someday escape the Cage and see the outside world. When a couple of his brothers turn up dead, killed by some sort of foul sorcery, he finds himself suspected of their murder, and forced to investigate in hopes of clearing his name. At about the same time, he also meets a younger brother who turns out to be a surprisingly decent fellow, and also falls hopelessly in love with a foreign princess who is destined to wed the next Sultan. It's not a good time to be Prince Amir...

This book creates something of a dilemma for me.

On the one hand, I would like to give it a really enthusiastic review, to encourage Night Shade to keep sending me free books. Because, well, free books!

On the other hand, I'm not Harriet Klausner, and don't want to be.

The strength of this book is really the setting, which is a nice variant on the Arabian Nights sort of setting. It's not incredibly original, but it is a change of pace from the generic European medievaloid setting that is all but ubiquitous in fantasy. And there are some nice touches, such as the updated-daily rankings of the princes in the Cage, posted on a big board in the central hall of their palace.

The plot, though, is surprisingly bland. Amir is weirdly passive for most of the book, lurching occasionally into action, but also subject to fits of pique that seem to have more to do with the author wanting to draw things out than anything springing naturally from his character, and he turns into a blithering idiot in the presence of the love interest. His brother Erik (son of a concubine from a European medievaloid kingdom to the north) is a little too good to be true, and the villains a little too mustache-twirlingly evil.

The physical book is nicely done-- which is worth noting, given that it's a small press-- but indifferently copyedited. There are numerous little homonym glitches ("bare" for "bear" and the like), culminating in the moment when the palace physician treating a poison victim mixes up a "fowl-smelling yellow brew." Chicken broth, I presume...

It's not a terrible book-- the plot's a little thin, but the writing is competent and it's a quick read. I wish I could say it was better than that, though.

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I wonder how negative a review has to be before the publishers consider it a net loss, worse than no mention at all.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 28 Oct 2007 #permalink

I wonder how negative a review has to be before the publishers consider it a net loss, worse than no mention at all.

Indeed. This is not a positive review, but on the other hand I'd have never in a zillion years had heard of this book had Chad not written it.