BooksOfTheMoon

Cage of Souls

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 2 stars

Shadrapar is the last remaining city on Earth, with the remnants of humanity having retreated behind its walls. Stefan Advani wears many hats, but the most important one when we meet him is that of prisoner. Taken away from Shadrapar, to the Island, the brutal prison where all the city’s outcasts are exiled.

The most immediate comparison that came to mind when I read the blurb for this book was Clarke‘s The City and the Stars, but Shadrapar is no Diaspar. A more fitting comparison might be to Jack Vance‘s Dying Earth series. It’s got that sort of vaguely mythological feel to it, a mix of high and low technology, and a grime embedded by building on countless previous civilisations that have risen and fallen on the planet since our day – so long past that even myths of our time have been lost.

But Tchaikovsky’s world is far more depressing than that of either Clarke or Vance. Stafan’s world is just the Island, where the Marshal rules with a rod of iron, under the mostly absent Governor. He rules through fear, killing merely as an example; throughout the whole book we never see him betray any emotion other than hatred. Alongside him, is Gaki. A fellow prisoner, but one that Stefan fears as much as the Marshal. He doesn’t do much beyond scare Stefan for most of the book, until the end when his true psychopathy becomes clear.

Amongst the pain and grime of the Island, there are little elements of hope. Stefan befriends a warden named Peter, who is kind to him throughout his life on the Island, and he makes a few friends amongst fellow prisoners, but these are pinpricks in the misery and hopelessness that the book is steeped in for much of its length.

The book offers flashbacks to Stefan’s life prior to the island, and we get to see both Shadrapar and its Underworld. The city is corrupt, with the elite chasing each other’s debt and mutilating themselves for fashion. And the Underworld has its factions and its poverty, but it seems to have a sort of energy to it that the city proper hasn’t.

And then there’s the ending.

Spoiler

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that ends with the vast majority of the remaining human race killed off, and off-screen, at that! The book is vague about the remaining number, but seems to come down on the side of it not being a viable population to recover from. So Tchaikovsky basically makes the Human race extinct. And yet… it’s not entirely hopeless. The web-children may not be a direct genetic successor, but they are our inheritors, the ones who will use Stefan’s mind-power knowledge and maybe create something better.

I mean, that’s bare scratchings of hope – basically burn it all down and start again from scratch, in the hope that it’ll be better. Humanity has had its chance, and it’s been found wanting. Not my idea of hope, but not as bitter an ending as I’d feared.

So yeah, Tchaikovsky is an accomplished writer, very capable of creating vivid characters, worlds and scenes. But he also seems to be a pretty dark writer. Between this and Bear Head, I think I’m putting his books down and walking away.

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