The Princes of the Golden Cage is a fine debut fantasy by Nathalie Mallet. Mallet sets her fantasy in a vaguely Arabian setting, with a Sultan and his many princes by many wives. The princes are kept caged in sumptuous captivity, a reaction to previous generations having raised armies and warred upon one another to eliminate competition for the throne. Now the princes war merely upon one another, seeking out reasons for offense and therefore excuses for duels to the death.
Prince Amir has opted out of the competition altogether. He is a mid-level prince in any event, not likely to ever see his name anywhere near the top of the list of succession. He is, in essence, motherless, his mother probably having traded her son for riches and freedom from the very moment he was born, as was her right under the peculiar laws of the harem. He has no one to fight for him or to protect him, therefore, and is left to his own resources. He has chosen a life of solitude and study, avoiding his brothers in an attempt to avoid giving offense and thereby stay alive. His principal interaction with any of his brothers is the care he gives to two of his fellow princes who appear to be mad, one a schizophrenic and one who suffers from paranoid delusions. He lovingly cares for them, bringing them food and ensuring their safety.
Amir has a reputation that follows from his scholarship, however, and when one of his brothers dies in a manner that appears to be supernatural, he is called by the Grand Vizier’s assistant for his opinion. Amir believes in science, not magic, and he thinks there must be a natural explanation for the death. But when other deaths follow in quick progression, he is forced to start exploring ancient books on myth and magic for an explanation for not only the deaths of his brothers, but also the mysterious and unnatural aging of his father with the waxing of the moon.
He receives help from an unlikely quarter, his brother Keri, known familiarly as Erik for his Northern European blonde hair, features and ancestry. His mother is one of the Sultan’s wives, not a concubine, a gift to the Sultan to make peace between kingdoms. She has big plans for her son, and sees Amir as a means to bring them about.
Erik has long fought against his imprisonment in his gilded cage, and has found the means to escape into the palace grounds through a series of underground tunnels that sometimes seem as numerous and ubiquitous as New York’s subways, sewers and utility tunnels. Nor is this his only means to flout the rules that guide young princes. Despite Amir’s growing fondness for his brother, neither Erik nor his mother can escape Amir’s suspicions. Certainly Erik’s servant, the silent and sometimes almost invisible Rami, does not inspire Amir’s confidence.
But Amir runs into another sort of problem when he meets Eva, another gift from the country that sent Erik’s mother to the Sultan. She is to be a gift for the next Sultan, his first wife. When Amir meets her, his heart is immediately lost, and she is equally smitten. Amir breaches all etiquette by kissing her hand when they are first introduced. Touching an unmarried woman could mean his death, were it not for a quick-thinking ambassador who notes that it is the tradition in Eva’s own country, and compliments Amir for observing the etiquette of Eva’s homeland. The two steal meetings repeatedly, with Erik’s help, posing immense danger to themselves and to those who help them, until Erik’s mother discovers them and intercedes to save them from themselves. If Erik becomes the next Sultan, he will not marry his first cousin; is this a means for Amir to gain her as his wife?
The dangers grow as the book moves forward. The brothers begin to suspect not just each other but even the Sultan himself of black magic. Brothers seek excuses for duels with brothers; brothers poison brothers, a coward’s road punishable by loss of rank; and the death toll grows greater with each passing day. Amir and Erik must find the answer, but their own lives are in danger, both from the magic encompassing the palace and their own encounters with demons, and from their brothers, who see them as growing threats.
Like Scheherazade, Mallet gives us a world of sand, roses and tulips, flowing silks in the richest colors, jewels and riches in a treasury worthy of Ali Baba’s cave, and sumptuous captivity for scores of young men all yearning for a single throne. This is both a fantasy and a mystery, and it plays a scrupulously fair game, should one wish to follow the clues rather than become lost in the glamour that Mallet creates with her words. It is a shame that this delicious first effort is marred by poor proofreading that can jar the reader out of the story with sometimes hilarious typographical errors. Still, I am looking forward to Prince Amir’s continuing adventures in The King’s Daughter.