Category Archives: Sci Fi

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 10 June) | 290p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin PercyThe mining town of Northfall, Minnesota, was already dying before the night it was hit by a devastating shower of meteorites. On the same night, a young boy’s life is changed forever by the murder of his parents, a deed that is overshadowed by the discovery that the meteorites contain an unknown metal, the Ninth, which is more precious than gold and more useful than any known element. Now the world is coming to Northfall. Anyone can become a millionaire but the biggest money is for those who own land. Northfall has become a new Wild West and at the heart of it stands one family, the Frontiers.

Benjamin Percy is such a good writer of speculative fiction and The Ninth Metal has it all – science fiction, horror, apocalypse and disaster, crime, all set within the world of what feels like a modern Western as Northfall becomes the focus of a frenzied Gold Rush (strictly speaking, an Omnimental Rush). The novel is populated by big characters, especially the enigmatic John Frontier and his utterly horrifying sister Talia, but there are other memorable people here, too, both monstrous and innocent, all transformed in the five years since the meteorites hit. Some are little more than gangsters in a violent battle to control land while others have become a cult with the strange metal their object of veneration. There is a lot of life in this town. There is chaos, mystery and more than a little fear. For one boy and the scientist who looks after him, there is terror.

The Ninth Metal is the first novel in a new series, The Comet Cycle. As a result, we don’t get all of the answers but it does have a satisfactory and tantalising end. It left me wanting more without feeling that I’d been left on the edge of a cliff. It tells a great story, packed into about 300 pages. It moves between the present, the night of the fire from the sky, and the following few years. It’s a very fast read. There wasn’t as much science fiction as I would have liked but I suspect that there is more of that to come in book 2 and so I can’t wait to read that.

I thought that there was very much a Stephen King-y feel to the novel, and that is a good thing – a small town at the centre of something horrific, powerful and apocalyptic, even religious, and where salvation may also be found. It’s a novel about good and evil in a dying town cut off from the rest of the world. There’s a sense that people may leave but they will always return. It works on small and epic scales as we realise that what is happening to Northfall could have apocalyptic consequences for everyone. We don’t yet know the nature of what is happening and what it all means but we really want to know!

The Ninth Metal is a fabulous book. I was thoroughly gripped and I cannot wait for book 2.

Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tor | 2021 (27 May) | 560p | Review copy | Buy the book

Shards of Earth by Adrian TchaikovskyEarth is destroyed, its form twisted and distorted by the Architects, a species the size of a moon, that barely notices the planets and ships that it moulds into more pleasing shapes. Technologies developed to try and confront this enemy, including the creation of enhanced humans, until a method of attack was discovered almost by accident when one type of altered human – the Intermediaries – was found to be able to communicate with them and the Architects, almost in horror, left. But now, years later when humankind is divided by warring factions, vessels are vanishing and it is possible that they have returned. Intermediaries are few and far between and their sleepless endless lives are a torment. One of them, Idris, is navigator aboard a small salvage vessel. He wants to lead an obscure, quiet life. That will not be allowed to happen.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is a truly brilliant writer of science fiction. He is stunningly inventive and imaginative and he fully delivers on that vision with fantastic prose, plots and characters. Children of Time is one of the best books I have ever read, and I thoroughly recommend Cage of Souls and The Doors of Eden as well. And now I can add Shards of Earth to that. I was thrilled to learn that the author was embarking on another space opera series (The Final Architecture) and this is a great beginning.

The world building is vast and glorious. Humanity is divided and warring in the aftermath of the home world’s destruction, and the factions are all represented here, notably Idris and Solace, a Parthenon warrior. The chapters move between key characters, which keeps up the momentum but also widens the epic scale of this universe. The crew members of Idris’s ship are so well drawn (I love the paternal, even maternal Captain) and we follow them as they get into all sorts of scrapes (to put it very mildly indeed) as they travel through the truly terrifying Unspace. These aren’t characters you want to get too attached to…

As with most epic space operas, it does take a while to get going. There’s a lot of history to learn but the book ends with a chronology of events and a list of people, places, ships and factions. This isn’t spoilery and I would definitely recommend reading that first. I found that it helped a lot and when I met Idris, I already had a good idea of what he would face.

This is a witty book, it’s also frightening. The Architects are the stuff of nightmares and the descriptions of what they can do really stand out in the novel. I love the mix of banter and mayhem as people go about their business on ships, habitats and worlds, some of which are lawless and run by gangsters. Everything we see is the result of the Architects. Their random and careless destruction has traumatised mankind, leading people to cope with it in their own ways – whether that’s through religion, becoming part of a warrior elite class, killing, hunting for the Architects, or hiding. And watching all of it, we sense, is something so monstrous that it cannot be perceived, something in Unspace that is so horrific that humans must sleep through their journeys through it, with only the navigator, the Intermediary, remaining awake and haunted. This is fabulous stuff!

Shards of Earth is an immersive and thoroughly engaging read, full of mystery, enigma and menace, as well as wow moments. Epic space operas are a favourite thing for me and Adrian Tchaikovsky is very, very good indeed at writing them.

Other reviews
Children of Time
Children of Ruin
The Doors of Eden
Cage of Souls
One Day All This Will Be Yours
With C.B. Harvey and Malcolm Cross – Journal of the Plague Year

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Del Rey | (2021) 4 May | 498p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the the book

Project Hail Mary by Andy WeirWhen Ryland Grace wakes up from an induced coma, he has no idea where he is or even who he is. He just knows that the two people with him weren’t so lucky, both are dead in their pods. He doesn’t remember them either, yet. But the grief will come. Slowly, and with the rather annoying ‘help’ of a very basic AI, Grace realises that he has been asleep for a very long time, he is aboard the spaceship Hail Mary and that sun out there isn’t even Earth’s. He remembers his mission – he is the only chance Earth has. Earth’s sun is under attack by small ‘things’ that are consuming its power. In one generation, much of life will be dead. But a seed of hope has been detected here, light years from home and, Ryland Grace, a scientist and school teacher, is going to have to work out how to fix the sun.

How a school teacher ended up in this situation forms half of Project Hail Mary as the chapters flit between Ryland’s current predicament and the months that led up to it – and this means we meet Eva Stratt, my favourite character of the novel. This woman has been tasked with project managing the salvation of Earth. She has absolute authority over everyone on Earth, fully aware that one day, if her project succeeds, she’ll pay for it. Anything she needs, she gets, including Ryland Grace, who seems to have an innate understanding of what he has named Astrophage. I absolutely loved Eva who embodies control while also suffering under its burden. Some odd statements are given to her, though, such as when she says that an ideal crew would comprise ‘all heterosexual males’. Not a particularly useful or helpful statement to present as fact in a novel in this day and age.

There is another amazing character in this novel but I’m not saying a word about them but I really want you to meet them – if you’ve read the book, you’ll know just who I mean!

Ryland Grace is, to all intents and purposes, Mark Watney (of The Martian fame, although there are some interesting aspects to Grace’s character that are slowly revealed which are unlike Watney. But it’s true to say that with Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir has returned to the ‘safe’ territory of The Martian after the disappointment that was Artemis, and that is very good news indeed. Once more we have a practical scientist, out there in a perilous bit of space, who has to science his way out of it, with us egging him on.

The humour is similar to that of The Martian. It can be a bit irritating at times (especially in the audiobook, which is how I read this) but there are some laugh out loud moments, despite the predicament, and I really enjoyed spending time in Ryland Grace’s head. I should mention that the narrator of the audiobook, Ray Porter, is absolutely fantastic.

Then we come to the science itself. I’m pretty sure that 95% of it flew right over my head. There are info dumps and they’re the size of Everest. But it’s that sort of book. They need to be there and it didn’t bother me that I hadn’t a clue what he was going on about. I was there for the story and that I loved. I really enjoyed The Martian and I was thrilled to have more of the same. Andy Weir is so good at it.

Other reviews
The Martian
Artemis

One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Solaris | 2021 (4 March) | 191p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

One Day All This Will be Yours by Adrian TchaikovskyWelcome to the end of time! A farmer lives a quiet life in the aftermath of the Causality Wars, wars that nobody remembers because everybody was unmade. The past has gone, blown apart into chunks of time, which the farmer pops into in his time machine, gathering up goodies to make his life at the end of time even more perfect. Other people do turn up now and again, time travellers from the past, but he sorts them out, following a lovely meal and some polite conversation. There are benefits to having a pet allosaur called Miffly. And then the unexpected happens, the impossible, the future comes to visit.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction is absolutely incredible, hugely clever, vividly imaginative and wondrous – Children of Time is one of my favourite novels of all time and I loved The Doors of Eden and Cage of Souls. I also love time travel books. The novella One Day All This Will Be Yours was therefore irresistible to me. And there’s a dinosaur on the cover. Oh yes.

Our narrator remains unnamed and our view of the end of the world, the Causality Wars, the broken past, is entirely his. He’s a genial and witty host, generously recounting his experiences of entertaining amusing and astonishing visitors who have come calling, as well as his trips to the little fragments of the past that survive. There is also the elaborate detail of how he keeps his present safe by fixing the past. It’s extremely jovial (albeit distinctly troubling), as he passes the time with us, and then everything changes when the future arrives and he meets his match. It’s fair to say that I was riveted.

As you’d expect from a time travel novel, there are more paradoxes, causality loops and upset space time continuums than you can shake a very friendly but always rather hungry pet dinosaur at. It can be complicated at times but I think you just have to sit back and enjoy it and not try and unravel it too much as that would raise some questions. It’s a novella and so it is short, at a little less than 200 pages, but it is meaty and, as it’s narrated entirely by this farmer, it suits the novella format.

I listened to the audiobook (which lasts three hours and something), which is narrated by Adrian Tchaikovsky, the author himself. I had my doubts about this as authors don’t always make good actors but Adrian is fantastic! As a result, I’ll be listening to more of his other books that I have yet to catch up on. He fully captures the wry humour of our narrator, his tormented personality, his (self-appointed) godlike status, and the sheer absurdity of the situation he finds himself in. And I loved Miffly. Listening to One Day All This Will Be Yours for an afternoon was a perfect way in which to spend time.

Other reviews
Children of Time
Children of Ruin
The Doors of Eden
Cage of Souls
With C.B. Harvey and Malcolm Cross – Journal of the Plague Year

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (18 February) | 325p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky ChambersThe planet Gora is unremarkable in every way and, with no air, no water and no indigenous life, it would seem a strange place to settle. But its proximity to a number of popular planets makes Gora the perfect rest stop on long haul journeys across the Galaxy, especially when the place to stop is as welcoming as the Five-Hop One-Stop. Oulo, with her teenager Tupo, welcome three visitors to their Five-Hop One-Stop. Each intend to stay no longer than a few hours and all have important appointments to keep on other, far more interesting worlds, but they cannot fail to be charmed by their friendly hosts who provide as much cake as they can eat as well as wonderful baths. But the visitors are marooned by a fluke technological disaster, which halts all traffic on or off the planet for what might be days. The visitors and their hosts are thrown together and there is nothing to do but wait and rely on each other to help pass the time. And each of these visitors couldn’t be more different from each other and their hosts.

The premise of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within sounds simple, albeit enticing, and it hides the true nature of this absolutely gorgeous, enchanting novel, which presents us with four alien species all trying to get along on a world that isn’t so much hostile, although it is deadly, as entirely uncaring for life. This story is all about these five characters and anyone who has read any of the other books in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series will know just how intoxicating this tale will be, how much we will fall in love with its people. This is so sadly the last of the four novels. Each stands alone, although there are references to characters from other books as there are here, but as a group of novels they are perfect in their creation and depiction of this universe called the Galactic Commons. You can definitely read this without having read the others first but you’ll certainly want to read them afterwards.

The four species represented here are so different from each other, in appearance, in nature, in their methods of communication and perception, in their relationships and in their desires. I don’t want to say much at all about these characters because it is such a joy learning about them but I must say that the Laru have to be the most loveable alien species I have ever encountered in fiction. Oolou and Turpo, the Laru owners of the pit stop, are furry, bendy, floppy four-legged people, very similar to alpacas and every bit as delightful in nature as you’d expect from such a fluffy alien. Turpo, still waiting to select a gender, is absolutely adorable and unites the novel and its characters. Nobody brings people together like Turpo. Because of Turpo, guests confide in each other about their worries and concerns, their past and their loves, while they play games or feast together or irritate each other.

Through these characters we learn so much about this fantastic universe that Becky Chambers has created – its wealth of traditions and customs, its hostilities and unions, its loneliness and its companionship. I adored every page of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, only wishing it were longer. This is such a good series, one of the very best in science fiction, but this book, its glorious finale, is my favourite. I now want to go back and read or listen to the others again. I’m not ready to let the Wayfarers go. A very definite contender for my top book of 2021.

I must also mention that I absolutely love the title of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. It speaks so well to the message and feeling of the novel.

Other reviews
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
A Closed and Common Orbit

Record of a Spaceborn Few
To Be Taught, If Fortunate (a stand alone novella)

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

Gollancz | 2021 (4 February) | 336p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Purgatory Mount by Adam RobertsIn the far future, a spaceship carrying a crew of five human entities, the type that can live for thousands of years and regard themselves with godlike eyes, arrives at a distant planet and discovers an enormous artificial mountain, a tower that soars into the sky. For everyone on the vessel, whether human or divine or something else, is this the end of their journey?

In the near future, America is falling apart. Chemical warfare has robbed many of its people of their memories. Memories, essentially identities, are stored on phones. Without their phones, these people will sit and let themselves die, not even remembering that they need to drink a glass of water. The country has become the United States of Amnesia and it is about to get even worse. 16-year-old Otty and her friends have created their own private internet network, a support network, using a technology that isn’t controlled by the eSpires that tower over the land. Agencies want this technology and Otty and her friends must endure a dystopian hell.

Adam Roberts is a master of intriguing science fiction with big ideas and themes. His books also have the most beautiful covers! Purgatory Mount is no different. The novel is in three parts, with the central and longer story of Otty and her friends sandwiched between the far-future story set in space. I loved the opening on an alien world and then we moved to the near-future USA and I was completely captivated by the young Otty. She is a marvellous creation, a living, breathing teenager who is essentially vanished by the authorities. All she has to do is remove their phones, disconnect these bullies from their memories, but it’s almost as if she doesn’t want to do that. There is a decency about Otty that I loved. I really felt for her in her moments of fear and isolation but she is so clever and resilient. The world around her is in such a terrible state but with Otty around it’s difficult to give up hope entirely.

The dystopian American world is vividly imagined and portrayed. It’s recognisable. It’s only a step or two away from where we are, which makes it all the more believable and frightening. The end of the world seems so close and yet, when we are with Otty, it feels like this can be avoided.

One of the things I absolutely love about science fiction is that I can thoroughly enjoy a story, be amazed by its vision and wonder, without necessarily having to understand all of its ideas. I don’t need to understand it entirely to be in awe of it. This is the case with Purgatory Mount. Its two threads do join together and I like very much the ways in which they do. The past influences the future. It moves it forward, or in other directions. In the afterword, we are reminded of paradise lost and paradise found, the circles of purgatory and hell. I have read Dante but that certainly isn’t necessary to find oneself immersed in this tale of sin and atonement, humanity and the divine, identity and confusion.

Adam Roberts has always been so good at creating female characters and Otty is one of my favourite fictional characters in a fair old while. I adored her while fearing the world she lives in. I did prefer her part of the novel despite imagining, at the beginning, that I would love most the far future story in space. This is possibly because Otty is far easier to relate to than the entities of the future, however intriguing they are. The best science fiction entertains and dazzles me while also making me think. I’m reminded of the author’s The Thing Itself (I loved that book!) and I’m going to be thinking of Purgatory Mount for quite some time. And that cover!

Other reviews
The Thing Itself
The Real-Town Murders

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit | 2020 (8 October) | 576p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Buy the audiobook

The Ministry for the Future was established in 2025 ‘To advocate for the world’s future generations and to protect all living creatures, present and future’. Based in Zurich, the Ministry is a type of United Nations and within it are rivalries, conflicts of interest, on local and global levels. The question is, is it up for the job? And when a cataclysmic heatwave hits India in the 2020s, it is proven that it fundamentally does not. Why should countries like India buy into it when the country is faced with catastrophe again at any time and for any number of times and needs immediate action, not committees?

The Ministry for the Future tells the Ministry’s story during the years following its creation. Many lives and perspectives are presented but the narrative is dominated by two voices – that of Mary Murphy, its head based in the relatively temperate Switzerland, and Frank May, a volunteer aid worker who is caught up in the Indian heatwave and is forever changed by it.

Kim Stanley Robinson is a master of science fiction and whose thoughts are very much on the environmental and climate crisis that is facing us now and will have devastating consequences for the future he portrays. In New York 2140, he gave us a more straightforward and very effective account of the consequences of climate change. The Ministry for the Future is a far more ambitious, less straightforward novel that looks at ways in which the world is being changed and considers ways in which they might be tackled in the future – whether by global cooperation or by ‘Black Ops’. Mary Murphy’s job is to rally government and business leaders to the cause, working though compromise and promises, trying to keep her sense of purpose. Frank, on the other hand, has experienced first hand the devastation of the changing climate and his call for immediate action, his support of ulterior methods, is a powerful voice in Mary’s ear.

The beginning of the novel is one of the most powerful sequences I’ve ever read. We witness the Indian heatwave and Frank’s suffering. It is horrific and Kim Stanley Robinson’s superb writing makes it very clear to us how many millions of people have died. You can feel the heat. Almost. I think that this beginning is very difficult to follow and, for the rest of the novel, although there are other extraordinary sequences, I became less involved. The many chapters take different forms, there are lists, essays, speeches and ideas. I must admit to skimming some of these as they were quite dry, at least for my non-scientific brain, and I enjoyed most the sections which we spend with people, either experiencing the reality of climate change or trying to fix it to the best of their ability. Frank is a figure who pops up intermittently and points Mary, or us, in new directions, and makes the story feel human. Mary Murphy, though, is the principle character for me. She feels more realistic, more there as an individual and not to represent a point of view. I really felt for her

I cannot deny that I found The Ministry for the Future a challenging read. I listened to the audiobook, which had the appeal of having numerous actors narrate the many different roles. It was a bit confusing trying to keep up with who was whom, but I liked this. But it still felt difficult at times. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those authors that I admire and respect enormously, whose books I often love but sometimes I don’t, usually when the message takes over the storytelling. Unfortunately, this is one of those books for me. But, nevertheless, I loved sections of it and it’s clearly impressive and preaches an essential message. I think, perhaps, my brain in these difficult times wasn’t up to this one!

If you want to read another review from a reviewer who clearly ‘got’ what this book is about and writes about it beautifully, please see David’s review at Blue Book Balloon.

Other reviews
2312
Aurora
New York 2140

Red Moon

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Tor | 2020 (15 October) | 880p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

Kira Navárez is a Xenobiologist – her job is to explore alien life on other worlds and she loves it but she dreams of making that once in a lifetime discovery that would change the way in which people look at the universe. Unfortunately, when she discovers an alien relic on the uncolonised planet of Adrasteia, she does just that. The black dust surrounding the relic begins to move and it will have devastating consequences for Kira, for her crew and for the Galaxy.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a mighty volume – at about 900 pages – and it tells Kira’s story in her own words. It’s an epic tale, full of tension, conflict, mystery and self-exploration as Kira learns to understand what it means to be a human when she is so intricately and intimately connected with another being. It’s fascinating watching her relationship with this new part of herself develop, just as it’s thrilling to witness the interactions of Kira and her crew aboard the Wallfish with two alien species – the Jellies and the Nightmares. These species are wonderfully described, especially the mysterious and curious Jellies.

I loved the Wallfish crew, especially Trig, but my favourite character, possibly in the whole book, is the ship’s mind Gregorovich who, its fair to say, is quite possibly insane and has an interesting turn of phrase.

I’m in two minds about To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. I love Kira – we get to know her so well and she is vividly and fully portrayed by the author. I also love the crew of the Wallfish and loved spending time with them. But this book is far too long, which dilutes everything that is so good about it. Too much time is spent on interludes that seem to offer little except to give Kira the chance to self-reflect. I enjoyed the development of Kira’s relationship with the Wallfish captain but there are some painfully slow scenes between them. But what kept me with it, quite apart from Kira, was the outstanding audiobook narration (all 32 hours of it) by Jennifer Hale. What a superb narrator! She brought Kira (and Gregorovitch) alive for me. I also really admire the author’s ambition and commitment to his characters. This book is clearly a labour of love and that shines throughout.

The Saints of Salvation by Peter F Hamilton

Macmillan | 2020, Pb 2021 | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Saints of Salvation by Peter F HamiltonIt’s always a special day when a new novel by the Space Opera Master, Peter F Hamilton, arrives on the shelves and yesterday Macmillan published The Saints of Salvation, the final novel in the excellent Salvation sequence. I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. I rarely do blog tours these days but an exception had to be made for a novel by one of my very favourite authors, whose Pandora Star remains my all-time top science fiction novel. The Saints of Salvation completes the journey begun in Salvation and continued in Salvation Lost. You wouldn’t really want to start a trilogy with its conclusion so I do recommend you read the first two books beforehand. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

Time has passed – in the near future and the far distant future – and the Olyix plot to cocoon all of humanity to offer up every human soul to their god at the end of times is revealed. The astonishing plan by the saints to foil this plot is now underway and the two timelines are coming together as they converge on the Olyix. This is thoroughly exciting stuff especially as the few remaining cities of Earth are on their knees, their shields failing, sabotaged by Olyix agents. No longer can people step through a portal to new worlds and safety, now they are stuck where they are, separated from their families, while, in the skies above, fighter ships must make terrible decisions about whether to destroy enemy vessels, crammed full with human hostages. Stakes have never been higher.

The Saints of Salvation is, arguably, the most exciting of the three novels as events reach their climax. Less time is spent on character interaction. We know who these people are now and we know how driven they are. It’s good to see them again. I particularly enjoy the far future thread with Dellian and Yirella and this contrasts well with the continued tale of Ollie who is scrambling to stay alive in what remains of London in the near future.

The story widens even further in The Saints of Salvation. We emerge into a universe that is even bigger than before, a time scale that is even more immense, and plans and conspiracies that stretch beyond the understanding of our characters, our heroes, and our saints.

Peter F Hamilton is a genius in creating jawdropping concepts, strange beings and astonishing worlds and ships. He shows this yet again and the result is another all-consuming and involving story. Each of the novels is different, the scope widening with each, the sinister menace, insanity even, of the Olyix increasing. This is a novel of apocalypse and salvation and it could not be more engrossing or thrilling. I can’t wait to see where we’re taken next.

Other reviews
Pandora’s Star
Judas Unchained
Great North Road
The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn 1)
The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn 2)
The Naked God (Night’s Dawn 3)
The Dreaming Void (Void Trilogy 1)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers 1)
Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers 2)

Salvation
Salvation Lost

For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Head of Zeus | 2019 | 624p | Review copy and bought copy | Listen to the book | Buy the book

Cage of Souls by Adrian TchaikovskyThe 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.

Other reviews
Children of Time
Children of Ruin
The Doors of EdenWith C.B. Harvey and Malcolm Cross – Journal of the Plague Year