The Princes of the Golden Cage by Nathalie Mallet

 Night Shade Books mass market 2007

Amir, a son of the Sultan of Telfar, lives with his hundreds of brothers in a golden cage. Because Telfar tradition determines the sultan’s successor based on a complex – and seemingly arbitrary – system of merits that pits brother against brother, the Sultan’s sons are kept under watch on the palace grounds to prevent their power plays from turning into wars. Having no ambition to become sultan, Amir lives the life of a scholar and tries to stay out of his scheming brothers’ way. But when some of the princes are slain by a mysterious mist-like entity, Amir finds himself thrust into the court’s cut-throat politics and matters even more deadly. Oh, and there’s a beautiful princess involved, too.

A few weeks back Night Shade Books sent me a copy of Nathalie Mallet’s debut novel, the Middle East-themed fantasy/mystery The Princes of the Golden Cage. Night Shade is releasing it as a mass market paperback, which is an interesting choice in today’s world of hardcover SF and fantasy releases. This old school strategy has much in its favor; after all, mass market paperback releases cost less to produce, even though they’re also priced cheaper. It is a low-risk way to get newer writers on the market, and if the books sell, the publisher can then consider releasing the author’s subsequent books as hardcovers or trade paperbacks. The review copy of The Princes of the Golden Cage that I received appears to be the final mass market paperback that readers can find in stores.

I mention this because I cannot review this book without commenting specifically on the copy that I read. Book reviewers often receive advance review copies or uncorrected proof copies with the words “advance review copy” or “uncorrected proof copy” printed on their plain covers. These books are often missing supplementary material (e.g., in the case of an epic fantasy, there may be missing maps) and have occasional glitches in the text. With the understanding that these omissions and shortcomings will be taken care of in the final copy that reaches the bookstore shelves, the reviewer is requested to ignore them when reviewing the book. While reading The Princes of the Golden Cage I found myself repeatedly looking at the book’s glossy cover, which features a rugged-looking man in a kaftan grasping his rapier and a female companion wearing a blue turban, and I wondered if somehow I ended up with a proof copy.

In short, a book should not reach the shelves in the condition in which I found The Princes of the Golden Cage. This book is so sloppily written and edited, so littered with misspellings and errors of punctuation and grammar, that I had to put it down several times out of frustration and disgust. Moreover, many of the problems I noticed seemed more systematic than typographic: the editor was not merely ignoring mistakes made by the author, but rather ignoring fundamental problems with the author’s writing ability. One example is Mallet’s confusion between the meanings of the words “bear” (to hold) and “bare” (to open to view) as she repeatedly uses “bare” when “bear” is the appropriate word. Mallet also utters dozens of malapropisms (definitively crazy? a trolley of insults?) and seems to have an aversion to question marks (for some reason only about 25% of all questions receive them).

Mallet’s weaknesses as a writer manifest themselves not just in her garbled prose but in her characterization and plotting as well. The characters in the novel have three basic emotional reactions: rolling eyes, jaw dropping, and especially grimacing, which seems to be Mallet’s favorite verb. Exceptions to these three emotions include such vague descriptions as “he made a face.” What type of face, exactly? These transgressions indicate a limited vocabulary and a lack of imagination and effort on the part of Mallet, as well as a lack of oversight at Night Shade in missing these obvious problems with the manuscript.

The protagonist, Amir, is supposedly a very smart person, and is often consulted on esoteric matters, yet just about every peril he faces is due to his thoughtlessness. For a smart guy, Amir is incredibly stupid. Fortunately for him, everyone else seems equally dim. They strut about the pages of this novel like bad actors in an even worse play: guards wax verbose solely for the purposes of exposition, supporting characters actually step forward to deliver lines and then step back when they have finished speaking, and villains say “Argh!” when things go bad for them. At one point I expected Amir’s evil brother Ibrahim to exclaim, “Curses! Foiled again!”

The Princes of the Golden Cage has a somewhat interesting if familiar plot, filled with palace intrigue and supernatural events. The mystery follows the mold of the first two Harry Potter books, with Amir in the role of the reluctant hero Harry, Amir’s brother Erik as the supportive best mate Ron, and Erik’s servant Rami as the know-it-all Hermione. The three sneak out of the Golden Cage at night via the palace’s secret tunnels just as Harry and his friends sneak out of the dormitory at night with Harry’s invisible cloak. And where do they go? To the library, of course. Where else can the author provide massive amounts of exposition? Unfortunately, much of the plot in The Princes of the Golden Cage relies less on solving mysteries – even those solved in the library – and more on unbelievable character choices and actions. Amir is the one most often guilty of this offense, as he frequently goes off to do something on a whim only to later chastise himself for being stupid when it puts him in danger. His lack of judgment is rivaled only by the villain at the end, whose downfall comes courtesy of a preposterous “be careful what you wish for” plot contrivance that makes sense only as a plot contrivance.

The Princes of the Golden Cage does not read like a published novel, debut or not. It reads like a first draft one might encounter in a writing workshop, and a poor first draft at that. In addition to the numerous problems already mentioned, the novel is bloated with excess verbiage that should have been trimmed long before the book ever reached the editorial stage. It’s bad enough that one must read bad prose; it’s even worse when there is an unnecessary amount of the bad prose. The problems with this novel are so fundamental and so pervasive that I cannot recommend it to anyone except those who are extremely interested in Middle Eastern fantasy and don’t mind poorly written prose and incredible plotting. Night Shade Books indicates that this is the first book of an entire series of adventures featuring Amir. Having barely made it through this one, I’ll pass on the rest.

© 2007 Arthur Bangs

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