It starts as a fantasy, then takes a turn into fairytale land, with a Rapunzel-like tower, quests, villains and magic, wrapping up with an inevitable happily ever after. If you've read her stories before, you'll recognise the feeling, the soul mate storyline and the character types, and the lovely, descriptive writing.
Envy is a thief, in a poor city, who has hit on the genius plan of impersonating a servant and actually working through winter, in order to stay in the palace and be fed, through the cold weather. Unfortunately, she's decided to pursue the lofty ambition of sleeping with every woman in the castle, and stealing a token from each. Not knowing when to stop, and not actually being a good a thief as she thinks she is, this goes downhill and she ends up leaving a princess in tears, and gets herself locked in an inescapable tower. She's the protagonist, and the story is from her perspective.
Merle is the shy, gentle daughter of the Blackbird King, a thief cursed along with his followers to become a blackbird, who befriends Envy in her tower, feeding her and slowly teaching her magic. And they fall in love.
The two girls are interestingly different, and understandably wary, but they fall for each other fairly quickly and become increasingly close with little difficulty. The only real conflict between them is Envy's imprisonment and Merle's magical secrets and shyness. A good third of the book is then spent with them being lyrically emotional and adorable at each other. It's beautifully written and romantic and sappy, and I ended up feeling slightly intrusive, as if I was peering into the private life of two real people. I also started to worry about if there was going to be any more plot! (There is. So don't worry, and enjoy the bonding while it lasts, as their emotional connection is an important driver through the rest of the book).
The last third of the book is where Merle is kidnapped and Envy must ride to the rescue, faithful friend-with-a-hint-of-a-doomed-crush in tow, through various magical and reasonably easily solved escapades (although there are suitably nail biting consequences for failure, the nail biting is mostly on our heroine's part and not ours. Clearly the day will be saved and she will get her girl).
All the best story was in the first third of the book, mostly because it was interesting, unpredictable and original. Bear in mind that I subscribe to the school of 'the best stories involve finding horrible things to do your characters' and character growth, and generally prefer character driven stories over other kinds. Which actually sums it up quite well - the first part is character driven, the last part is our characters being swept up in events.
The ending left me a little unsatisfied, for most of the same reasons I generally prefer standard fantasy over fairy tales. All the problems are tied up neatly, our people become players, and we don't get to see behind the curtain into their lives anymore. I was unsure if the curse could or would ever be lifted, or if they wanted it to be - the thieves seemed quite happy in their little magical corner, and they provided a haven of sorts for all the magical oddities in the area. And we never hear back from any of the interesting people in the city - a chapter wrapping everything up would have been nice, rather than ending as soon as they are officially safe.
I'm also disappointed in never seeing the princess again - apart from a comment about her changing, we never find out what happened to her. It now occurs to me that she might turn up in a future story, as the author is starting to write about this world quite frequently, but in this case, it was a nagging absence.
The wicked and terrible witch turned out to be perfectly nice and smart and powerful, and indeed, the person who arranged everything so that the day could be saved. I was expecting that she was going to be interestingly ambiguous and all her cats might be there to eat any blackbirds that might fly in, but no. She just likes cats.
I was a little disappointed, mostly because I was expecting a different kind of story, a character driven fantasy, but most of my criticism is personal preference and having had really high expectations going in (the curse of becoming a good writer, your readers start judging you for only being good, and not amazing), and I would recommend this as a light, romantic fantasy read. Based on the beginning, and the interesting story elements I saw coming, I was hoping for adventure, intrigue and so forth, but it turned into a fairytale story, of the sort where everything works out and the only danger is there to keep the story going. Which can be quite fun, I just spent some time sulking about losing 'Envy the Thief' to 'Envy the Lovelorn Questor'.
Elora Bishop also writes under the name Sarah Diemer, and those books are supposed to be magical YA fantasy, while her Elora Bishop books are more adult romances, though I'd say Cage the Darlings would fall quite happily into the YA category.
You can buy Cage the Darlings on Amazon in Kindle & paperback format.