Upon opening to the first page of Megan Shepard’s “The Cage,” readers find themselves waking in a desert, confused and disorientated. The sun beats down on the dunes around them, but the reader remains unburned.
“Where am I?” The reader might ask. “How did I get here?”
These questions are forgotten as they discover mere pages later that the desert isn’t the only biome in this strange place. In a juxtaposition reminiscent of Minecraft, the desert is bordered by a tundra, farmland and jungle. At the center of these biomes is a town whose architecture seems to be a mash-up of different cultures.
These cultures were selected to be welcoming to the other inhabitants of this land, five teenagers who like the reader have awoken to find themselves in this strange place. Each is from a different country on Earth, with their own language, customs and personalities that will shape how they survive in this new world. All of them are afraid.
And all of them are being watched.
This is “The Cage,” a zoo established by humanoid aliens known as the Kindred. The teens were each secretly abducted from their homes in order for the Kindred to study and better understand humanity.
This first installment of Shepard’s "The Cage" Trilogy is a fast-paced read packed with twists and turns at every chapter. Each of the characters is well fleshed-out with backstories and personalities that are not only understandable but also enjoyable, staying with you long after you finish the final page.
The novel also has thematic weight as well, appealing to ideas of loyalty, compassion and empathy. As the story progresses, each of the characters feels the pressure of having to represent their entire species as they are poked and prodded by Kindred scientists in lab coats, forcing them to rely on each other as they seek to flee the Cage. Though they may disagree at times, the humans realize that they are their best chance of returning to Earth.
Shepard also explores themes of inherent humanity with the introduction of Cassian, the Kindred who takes the most interest in the Cage’s inhabitants. Despite being initially ridiculed by his fellow scientists, Cassian believes that the humans show potential for higher-level existence, leading him to try to aide them as much as he can. At times, he is the most human character in "The Cage," as the reader sees him struggle with guilt, loyalty, anger, jealousy and love.
While “The Cage” has been out on shelves since 2015, it’s hasn’t reached the level of attention that a novel of its quality deserves. However, readers of James Dashner will discover that Shepard’s novel is in many ways a better version of “The Maze Runner,” incorporating all of the themes and plot devices of the latter while making them relatable for all readers. A ten-out-of-ten book, Megan Shepard’s “The Cage” will be any reader’s next favorite book.