The city of Shadrapar is all that is left of humanity on Earth. It’s built on the remains of countless civilisations, it contains no more than 100,000 souls. It is all there is and, because the sun is dying, soon there won’t even be that. But people have lost the ability to care. They’ve turned their backs on the past, there isn’t a future. Shadrapar is more prison than home. Once people might have regarded it as a kind of utopia, with an ideal government, but no more. Now that government consigns dissenters and free thinkers (those, for instance, who fantasise about fixing this world) to the Island, a prison set within a jungled swamp and inhabited by the real dregs of this society, including murderers, the insane, sadistic psychopaths, misfits (and that’s just the guards). It is to this dreadful place that academic Stefan Advani has been consigned. He reminds us continually that he isn’t brave, that he isn’t special in any way, but he is a true survivor and rebel. He’ll need to be. Cage of Souls is Stefan Advani’s testimony. In it he tells his story – the events that led up to his imprisonment as well as life within the Island, where nothing is more valued or more rare than a glimpse of the sky.
I am a huge fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky and his fabulous imagination, which once more carries us to a strange, dangerous and alien world, so vividly and evocatively described, filling our senses. It’s hard to imagine anyone who can conjure up strange worlds as well as this author and he outdoes even himself here. We’re not on another planet this time but instead on Earth a long way into the future. Nature has reclaimed most of the planet in this, its dying days, but it has transformed. This wouldn’t be an Adrian Tchaikovsky novel without weird and really quite frightening creatures and there are plenty of them to be found here in the swamps, rivers and jungles, and even in Shadrapar. This planet is now the home of scavengers. But there are also mutations and these fascinate and terrify Stefan in equal measure, as he becomes increasingly absorbed in the works of the famous, and now missing, ecologist Trethowan.
Cage of Souls is a testimony told in Stefan’s own words and it isn’t so much of a plotted adventure as an autobiography filled with adventures. We get to know Stefan very well indeed as he is prone to self-analysis as well as modesty. But it is the characters that he must deal with that absolutely fascinate, as well as the the locations that confine them – boats, prisons, jungles, underworlds, the city. The people are incredible. The absolutely terrifying Island Marshall isn’t easy to forget, nor are the other guards and overlords, male and female. Stefan develops a friendship with one of the guards, Peter, whose own story adds some incredible set pieces to the narrative. Other memorable figures include the repulsively horrible Transforming Man and the truly evil Gaki. I listened to the audiobook and the narrator David Thorpe does a tremendous job of bringing the voices of these people to life – I swear I shivered every time these people entered the stage. And then there are the web children and the monsters that can speak. All within the steaming, wet, claustrophobic jungle and underworld.
Cage of Souls is a substantial read – the audiobook is about 25 hours – and I found it thoroughly immersive and also obsessive. I found it so hard to pull myself away from it. You never know what’s going to happen next, because it could be anything. There are moments that are truly horrifying and so dark, especially when it’s brought home what has happened to Shadrapar. The references to past civilisations are fascinating. These are desolate lives in so many ways but Stefan finds life in himself and others, even hope through his friendships, difficult though they can be. It’s a tale of survival, it’s a history of Shadrapar, it’s a prison tale, and it’s a tale of exploration as Stefan heads deep into the jungles and must find it within himself to survive while holding on to his humanity. It’s thoroughly engrossing and gorgeously written.