Publisher: Head of Zeus
Genre: Dying Earth
Publication Date: 04/04/2019
The sun is dying. The Earth is all but dead. The last of humanity is clustered in a single city, as corrupt as it is vulnerable. But Stefan Advani has bigger problems. . .
I’ll cut straight to the point. Cage of Souls is the best book I have read so far this year. It’s bleak, depressing, brutal and with barely a drop of hope contained within its numerous pages. But that doesn’t subtract from the fact that it is vivid, wildly imagined and utterly brilliant. For some reason I thought this was going to be a novella, and I am so glad it turned out to be a full-length novel. Because the story and idea within really need that extra depth and investigation.
We open with our narrator being shipped off to an island prison for vague crimes against the state. Cowardly and well-educated, Advani relies on both of these traits to keep himself alive. A task not made easier by dangerous wildlife, murderous inmates and a tyrannical Marshal who’d rather see the whole lot of them dead. The prison itself is as dangerous as any of the prisoners. A rusting mass of pumps and cages that appears to serve no purpose other than to get people killed.
Tchaikovsky’s future Earth is a uniformly bleak one. Outside the prison and the lone city of Shadrapar, the world is all but uninhabitable. There are deserts that will burn you, jungles that will poison and eat you, and a toxic, plastic-choked sea that holds only death. It’s a world that has turned against humanity, a fact that most of the human race appears to have accepted. We have become a species that no longer looks to the future, because there probably won’t be one. A sense of darkness pervades the entire book that’s enough to keep you up at night, and give you nightmares even if you do drift off.
As he settles in to prison life, Advani slowly reveals the events that led to his incarceration. As you’d expect, it’s not exactly happy reading. But it’s a change of pace that keeps you reading for just one more page. And then one more chapter. And then the whole book. These flashbacks to Shadrapar’s more cultured life are so far removed from prison life that they almost seem to be from another book. But rather than being disjointed, this only amplifies the sense of loss that fills the narrative.
One of the things I enjoyed most was the use of book-as-artefact. That is to say, Advani’s memoir exists within the world of the book. It adds another layer to the story, knowing that he himself considered the events important enough to record in text. While this technique lets the reader know the narrator survives, it allows for more intimacy than a regular first-person narrative. Playing with the unreliable narrator, while also directly addressing the reader, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the style used quite so well.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the book a wake-up call or use that dreaded word ‘timely’, the world is definitely informed by the ongoing conversation around the climate crisis we are currently facing. I can’t say that the book is an accurate depiction of where our species is heading (and I certainly hope the future can be a little brighter) it’s a worrying-enough possibility to make you think. Think, and fear. It would be easy for a setting like this to become nihilistic, but Tchaikovsky avoids that pitfall. Instead the book reads more sombrely. Like a lament for the future of human civilisation.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of Britain’s greatest living SF writers, and here he is on the top of his game. A serious contender for book of the year.