Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2
True brothers aren’t always blood related. Sometimes it’s the people we are fated to be around that become our true family and the people who affect us the most. This is certainly true in Robin Roe’s touching new novel A List of Cages.
Adam Blake is a popular guy who’s close to his social worker mom. Julian was a foster child in his home for months before being taken in by a distant uncle, who cut off all contact with the Blake family. When Julian and Adam are reunited, partially due to an assignment to Adam from the school psychologist who he works as an aid for, a series of events is set off that will bring the boys together, but also threaten to separate them for good.
I love books about sibling relationships and unconventional families. In that vein, this book did not disappoint. Despite not being genetically related, in every other way Adam and Julian felt like brothers. The way that Adam so tirelessly included Julian in his life was such a pure demonstration of brotherly love, and one of the things that I love about this book most.
On a craft level, this book is well written. It checks off all the boxes on the qualities of a dark contemporary without feeling too much like an issue book. It has flashbacks. It has some suspense. It has some scenes that will make you flinch. Trigger warning for physical and emotional abuse and violence, with strong implications of sexual abuse. The overall tone is dark and intense, but there are lighter moments and an overarching theme of hope and love.
Bridging a discussion of craft and character, Adam and Julian were my favorite characters by far. The novel is told from the two boys’ perspectives and each voice was richly developed. Adam’s energy and good intentions shined in his narration while Julian’s quiet resilience and hesitation shined in his. I was happy to see on the page representation of ADHD in Adam and dyslexia in Julian as well, both of which are needed in books for teens and adolescents.
The depiction of Adam’s mom, his friends Charlie, Matt, Emerald and co. and Julian’s uncle Russell were also well developed. If anything I would have liked to see more of Adam’s mom and it took me a while to get Adam’s friends straight. There is also a romance between Adam and a girl (I’ll keep it spoiler free) that was cute but seemed unnecessary and didn’t add much to the plot.
All of the adults in this book are super incompetent so if you’re a fan of the musical Spring Awakening, you might like this book too. Between the teacher’s cruel attitudes towards Julian, his lack of disability accommodations from the school and the school’s psychologist’s obliviousness, I was getting seriously frustrated with the lack of good judgement from any of them. Still, it seemed believable enough in the context of the book and didn’t bother me too much while I was reading it.
Overall, this is a powerful and heartbreaking story of love, trauma, loss and family. I finished it in a day and couldn’t put it down. These two boys will pull you into their world, and you won’t be able to help but wonder what happens next. Hope this emotional read is in the stars soon for you!