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Kingdom of Cages
Sarah Zettel
Warner Aspect, 451 pages

Art: Michael Whelan
Kingdom of Cages
Sarah Zettel
Sarah Zettel was born in California in 1966. She has been writing for more that 14 years now. With several published novels in hand and her short fiction published in Analog, she's found herself with a host of fans and critics alike singing the praises of her work. Currently, she lives in Michigan with her husband Tim.

Sarah Zettel Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Kingdom of Cages
SF Site Review: Playing God
SF Site Review: Fool's War

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

The phrase "shit disturbing" takes on a whole new meaning when you work a backbreaking shift in the local sewage treatment plant, but Chena Trust, 13, is a born agitator and she's unhappy. Everyone tells her how lucky she is to move to the planet Pandora, but conditions there seem unbelievably primitive to a girl raised on a space station. Colonists live in tiny villages, eking out a subsistence living under harsh rules that forbid them from using machinery or modern medicine -- anything that might conceivably disturb Pandora's pristine biosphere.

It doesn't take long for Chena to start overstepping boundaries in this tightly regulated society, unaware that her violations may give officials an excuse to force her mother to become a human guinea pig in genetic experiments.

This very brief summary does not do justice to the plot of Kingdom of Cages, a strong novel with a complex and interesting backdrop. Humanity is in trouble. Planetary colonies are collapsing, and a flood of refugees has carried plagues back to an Earth that's already devastated by centuries of ecological mismanagement and overpopulation. Only Pandora is different because the colonists there built sealed habitats so they could live without disturbing the planet's ecosystem.

But now waves of refugees are threatening to overrun the planet and many Pandorans are willing to kill the interlopers to preserve their paradise. Tam Bhavasar, senior administrator of Pandora, is grappling with this crisis and also pursuing a more subtle problem. He has begun to suspect that somebody with a damaged Conscience implant is sabotaging attempts to find a cure for the galaxy's "Diversity Crisis."

The central theme of Kingdom of Cages -- finding a balance so that humans beings can live in their environment without destroying it -- could hardly be more relevant today, and Sarah Zettel raises plenty of good questions. She also comes up with an interesting plot element in the Conscience chips -- a well intentioned social control mechanism gone horribly wrong.

The writing is solid, too. Zettel handles all her characters well, especially her teenage protagonist and the relationship between Chena, her younger sister Teal, and their mother, Helice.

In fact, Zettel has enough ideas, characters and story threads in Kingdom of Cages to fill out a couple of novels -- and it's ultimately more than she can handle in the one book. For most of the novel, the action keeps moving and tensions rise, but the climax is weak, leaving many plot and character problems insufficiently resolved.

Still, I consider this a book worth reading. I also liked the striking Michael Whelan cover although, as far as I could figure out, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the novel.

Copyright © 2002 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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