The Cage, by Megan Shepherd

I’m not entirely sure when I came across this 2015 release, but I know I purchased it—along with two other books—last summer using an Amazon gift card I was given. I read those other two books pretty much right away, but this one sat on my bookcase for over a year. There really wasn’t a particular reason that it took me so long to open it—I bought the book, after all, so I must have been interested in reading it—other than other books struck my fancy between now and then.

The premise intrigued me as soon as I read it. A group of teens wake up in a bizarre amalgam of Earth’s habitats after being abducted by aliens. They are now exhibits in this otherworldly zoo. That idea instantly reminded me of an episode of 50s/60s television show The Twilight Zone called “People Are Alike All Over.” In that episode, Roddy McDowall plays an astronaut whose ship crash lands on Mars. The Martians are quite welcoming to him and even provide him with a home made to Earth specifications. He thinks he’s in for an idyllic life among the Martians, including an attractive female Martian, but when he’s locked inside the house—SPOILER ALERT!—one wall reveals cage bars. He’s a zoo exhibit: a human in its natural habitat. Just like these teens.

Our primary character is Cora, the daughter of a senator who recently was released from a juvenile detention center on a charge of drunk-driving vehicular manslaughter. Then there’s Lucky, a country boy from Montana whose past is intertwined with Cora’s. Rolf is a bullied genius who enrolled early in college, Nok is an aspiring model with a troubled past, and Leon is a physically imposing criminal. There would have been a sixth teen named Yasmine, but…

After initial exploration of the bizarre terrain, they are confronted with their alien captor, identifying himself as The Caretaker. He explains the rules of their new existence: (1) do the puzzles provided for them to test their mental and physical acuity, (2) eat the food and sleep regularly to stay healthy, and (3) take the necessary steps to procreate with their assigned partner within the next twenty-one days.

This is an excellent start for YA science fiction story. For readers worrying about the mention of sex, nothing is explicitly described, and because the story is set in a zoo run by aliens that don’t fully understand human nature, it wasn’t a distraction. However, despite the synopsis and acknowledgments that refer to this premise as a human zoo, it didn’t feel like a zoo. These aliens—the Kindred—can watch the teens through dark glass windows all over the place, but the observers all seem to be research scientists and not patrons at a zoo.

The environments are described in vivid detail, and the mysterious world of these aliens is rolled out at a steady pace. We learn that there are other alien races who sell and trade humans—or their parts—which makes for a few squeamish moments both in the idea of selling body parts and in the subtext of human trafficking. But the time spent within the titular cage—while the teens solve puzzles and bicker and plot an escape and argue and make out and go all Hunger Games—drags in places.

But my biggest issue with the story is the love triangle between Cora, Lucky, and Cassian the alien Caretaker. Lucky and Cora are paired by the alien algorithm, and their relationship develops somewhat realistically for two teens thrust into this bizarre situation and stuck there, but Cora’s attraction to Cassian is a mixture between Stockholm syndrome and something taboo for its sheer difference. And her interest in him seems to be purely physical, and while there’s not anything inherently wrong with that, it feels out of place. Too many YA books have a love triangle in them—usually one girl caught between two boys—that it becomes cliché when not handled well. Here, it was a distraction from the deeper questions I had and the themes I had hoped to be explored.

However, there were some really inspired developments near the end of the book. I really liked how the characters had changed—almost inverted themselves—over the course of the twenty-one days in the cage. Also, there’s a twist near the end that I didn’t see coming, and it made me see many events in a different light. I don’t think that’s enough for me to immediately hunt down The Hunt, the next book in this series, but the springboard into it is interesting.

This book has some great science fiction ideas and some interesting world building and character development, but its slow pace in places and somewhat contrived love triangle cage it at a respectable THREE AND A HALF STARS.

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The Cage is available at Amazon.

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