Cage Of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky (book review).

In the very far future, the remnants of mankind live in the city of Shadrapur. It’s a ruin of a city, eking out the leftovers of technology and knowledge as the sun begins to fail overhead. It’s a city whose inhabitants have entered a Vancian age of manners, stratification of society, strange customs and stranger organisations. It’s the settings for a book that soon captivated me and ultimately sealed its place as one of my all-time favourites.

Stefan Advani has been exiled to imprisonment on the Island, a baleful place of brutal guards and harsh conditions, surrounded by inimical wildlife in the swamps that border Shadrapur. Nobody ever returns from the Island and Stefan Advani recounts his time there in dire but surprisingly light-hearted terms, while filling us in on his former life with occasional flashbacks.

The artificial society of the prison island, as well as the ages-old society of Shadrapur, both come to life in vivid detail, evoking a feeling of great age and decadence, desperation and a veneer of civilisation. There is a tension beneath the surface, though, and Adrian Tchaikovsky does a masterful job of maintaining the suspense and drama throughout this 600 page volume.

The tone is one of a self-deprecating, educated man who is writing for an uncertain posterity in as style that regularly intersperses informal asides among his somewhat formal descriptions. What wonderful descriptions they are, too: the desperate conditions of the Island, the wondrously verdant yet deadly swamp, the brooding civility of Shadrapur. Stefan Advani is a brilliant protagonist, leading us through the highlights of his eventful life that seems to be intermittently blessed with good luck amongst the overwhelming bad luck of his life course.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has peopled this world with an array of fantastic characters, far too many to mention in fact, so that even the lesser background characters stand out brightly with their own personalities. There’s Lucien the eternally optimistic and verbose fellow prisoner; Gaki the extremely scary prisoner and several Wardens who make brief appearances but nonetheless have great impact on Stefan Advani’s life due to their small acts of kindness or shared experiences.

There are semi-sentient races, savage descendants of mankind, bizarre semi-organic machine creatures, homicidal Wardens, underground organisations and a whole Shadrapan society that is described in brief but gives the impression of great depth and untold history. It is a wonderful example of world-building and completely immersed me in the adventures of the book’s reluctant and sometimes ineffectual hero.

The cover, with its dark swampy landscape and hints of mysterious creatures, evokes the book perfectly. It is a constant threatening presence in the background, doing more to keep the prisoners on the Island than the Wardens do. There seems to be so much more to explore in this world, even though it is limited to one city and one swamp and it seems to have as much scope as an entire Galactic Empire.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has created something wonderful with this book. I need to spend some time contemplating it now that it has come to an end

Gareth D Jones

July 2019

(pub: Head Of Zeus, 2019. 602 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78854-724-6)

check out website: www.headofzeus.com

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