Rating: 4.5 Stars
Synopsis via Goodreads:
When Cora Mason wakes in a desert, she doesn’t know where she is or who put her there. As she explores, she finds an impossible mix of environments—tundra next to desert, farm next to jungle, and a strangely empty town cobbled together from different cultures—all watched over by eerie black windows. And she isn’t alone.
Four other teenagers have also been taken: a beautiful model, a tattooed smuggler, a secretive genius, and an army brat who seems to know too much about Cora’s past. None of them have a clue as to what happened, and all of them have secrets. As the unlikely group struggles for leadership, they slowly start to trust each other. But when their mysterious jailer—a handsome young guard called Cassian—appears, they realize that their captivity is more terrifying than they could ever imagine: Their captors aren’t from Earth. And they have taken the five teenagers for an otherworldly zoo—where the exhibits are humans.
As a forbidden attraction develops between Cora and Cassian, she realizes that her best chance of escape might be in the arms of her own jailer—though that would mean leaving the others behind. Can Cora manage to save herself and her companions? And if so . . . what world lies beyond the walls of their cage?
I loved this. Megan Shepherd’s The Madman’s Daughter series took me a little while to get into, but here, I loved everything about The Cage.
The beginning started off a little slow for me, but I still read this book within 8-9 hours in one day, with short breaks in the middle. I started this book around three in the afternoon, thinking I’ll just read a chapter or two to get me started and then I’ll work on something else. Yeah . . . that didn’t happen quite like I was expecting.
And I’m a fast, avid reader, but even for me that only happens when I really, really love a book.
The characters are perfect in their diverseness and ingenuity. None are stereotypes or your run-of-the-mill YA characters. This book is written in multiple POVs, and while usually I really, really dislike that quality in a YA book, here it worked nicely. Cora is the main character and therefore had the most POV chapters by a long shot, as she should, but the other few POV chapters were nice reminders on why I liked (and got frustrated over) every character so much.
Cora, Lucky, Rok, Rolf, and Leon all wake up in a preserve of sorts, where there are side-by-side varying landscapes and climates. There’s a dead girl by the shore. They’ve been taken by aliens – the Kindred – and are told they’ve been selected out of humanity to take and save. All the Kindred want of them in exchange for this luxurious cage and their cooperation is that they follow three basic rules: solve the games and puzzles set up around the cage, let the Kindred run health exams on them, and reproduce.
The first two rules? Whatever.
Obviously, they have a problem with this. (Like any sane human being would. Especially when the Kindred are watching their every move while inside the cage. Creepy much?) But, hey, the Kindred understand that the last rule won’t happen right away, so they’re going to give the humans a twenty-one day period until they either follow all the rules or they will be removed from the cage and . . . go somewhere else. And they are told that their predicament is the best of the best for humans, because it’s either this or be sold from owner to owner, where humans have no rights and certain aliens use human bones to make their tea. (True story.)
The only reason they have as good as a deal as they do is because Cora, Lucky, Rok, Rolf, and Leon are, in some way, the best of the best of all the humans. Maybe it’s because they’re cunning or genius or brave or beautiful. They have been hand selected to breed because, in theory, they have the best genes to pass along.
So, at first, they’re all for getting out of that cage. Except they’re always being watched and there truly seems to be no exist. And being locked up and suddenly having someone thrown at you who is said to be your perfect mate can do strange things to a person.
And it may be a cage, but it’s a luxurious cage. They can ask for anything they want. And for some of them, it’s so much better than the life they had on Earth.
Slowly, they all lose themselves. They all begin to believe there truly is no way out, and that the rules aren’t even all that bad. Time passes differently for them, and having their world shrunk in such a way brings out their worst qualities.
Eventually, Cora is the only one who is still set on escaping through whatever means necessary. The others turn their backs on her. She refuses to play along with the Kindred’s games, refuses to not fight back.
I was hesitant about the romance factor. Having some budding romance between a captor and prisoner isn’t easy to pull off without it being somewhat Stockholm syndrome-ish, but Shepherd pulled it off fantastically here.
Cora is so fantastic. She doesn’t need to rely on the others to put a plan to action. She doesn’t hesitate, because she’s been told all her life on how to act and how to smile even when she’s crying inside, and all of a sudden, being plucked out of her life on Earth and thrust into this world where all the old rules no longer apply opens something new in her. Something hungry and vicious and a little mad.
“A smile can hide so much. A smile can be a lie.”
If Cora sees an opportunity, she’ll take it. Even if the others tell her not to, to just play the Kindred’s games and accept her new fate, Cora plows on. Even if she’s all alone. Even if they tell her Earth no longer exists and even if Cora doesn’t know exactly how she’ll get onto a ship to take her back to Earth if she can escape her cage, she’ll still fight until she’s dead to get away.
There’s no love triangle here, either. Not really. Cora has her “perfect match” in the cage with her, Lucky, but she never actually falls in love with him. And she doesn’t fall in love with Cassian, her Caretaker, right away either. There are no moments when Cora wonders about her love life, because she’s got better things to do. (Also, she’d much rather strangle her captors.)
In fact, it takes some time for anything more than hate and disdain to be between Cora and Cassian. She doesn’t have any other feelings for him until she begins to learn other things about him, but even then, it takes a while for something to actually happen between them. And even then, Cora rejects his feelings, doesn’t want him touching her, because she wants out.
And, gosh, that ending. I can’t even. I just can’t. Even.
More than a love story (it’s really not, like, at all) and more than an alien escape story, this is a story about humanity and what can break a person. None of these characters are half-done. They all have complicated pasts and unique reasons to feel the way they do and act the way they do to each other. None are all good or all bad or all liars. They’re all a little of everything, and I think it was that that got me to love this so much.