It’s no secret: some of us at the Quill to Live unabashedly love Adrian Tchaikovsky. He’s easily one of my personal favorite authors, and I have been on a journey to catch up on his frankly impressive catalogue. Cage of Souls has been on my radar ever since it was released. It sat on my wishlist until I decided, “fuck it, it’s my birthday,” and I bought the book because its cover is too gorgeous to hide. Cage of Souls is a weird, deliberate, engrossing book about a prison in a jungle that hits all of Tchaikovsky’s usual highs while delivering something that still feels fresh, exciting, and hopeful.
It’s the end of the world. The sun has expanded and continues to expand, making the majority of the earth uninhabitable for humanity. The last known city, sitting atop one of the poles, is Shardrapar, and Stefan Advani has just gotten himself kicked out. He’s on his way to the last prison, found deep within the heart of the jungle that surrounds Shardrapar. This story is his collection of journals, detailing the life he had led in the prison and the parts of his story that ultimately got him sent to the Island as a prisoner where he meant to live out the rest of his life. He’s lived amongst the high society, tried saving the world with a pamphlet, bartered for his survival in the underground, and watched his friends die in a riot they inadvertently caused. Stefan has seen the world, and yet the jungles of Shardrapar still hold many mysteries, including the lives of the men and women he serves his sentence with. But what can one man do, when the world is falling apart and he feels surrounded by madmen and monsters?
Where does one even start when trying to dissect this novel? It has so much of what makes Tchaikovsky interesting and compelling. It’s a fairly slow burn that unveils its world and characters over the course of the book. It features a wildly imaginative biology that is both familiar and alien. It’s subtly funny, with dry humor that breaks up some of the more serious tension. Cage of Souls is a near perfect amalgamation of all Tchaikovsky’s strengths, mixed in with his daring need to explore new frontiers through the lenses of the old. So where do I start?
The story is a fun, yet deeply introspective look at Advani’s life as he tries to find meaning in it, while documenting the myriad ways in which he tries to save the world. The characters he meets are larger than life, often making him feel like an observer. He inhabits this role well, with his keen eye for detail and his ability to make the past and the world around him come alive. Half of the book documents Advani’s current predicament as he navigates the world of the Island, spending the majority of his time as the warden’s translator of works from a well known, and presumed dead, naturalist. The other half is him reflecting on his life before he was put on the boat to perpetually lose games of chess against his prison guard turned ally, Peter. Told in alternating chapters, the readers get to see Peter as he is and who he was in the hopes of seeing who he might be. It’s well paced, with neither side out-staying it’s welcome, with each foray into the past feeling like a conspiratorial campfire story. In a word, it’s magical.
The story is bolstered by Tchaikovsky’s wonderful mix of poetic and utilitarian writing. Stefan’s humor is dry, his fear is palpable, and his curiosity immense and unsatiated. Everything feels documented with care, as if at some point Stefan will realize the importance of the smallest most mundane details. It never feels overwrought, and it feels like Tchaikovsky took great care to make every interaction seem meaningful to the reader, even if it’s not immediate. It’s not the flashiest writing, but it’s easily one of the more emphatic first person works I’ve read in a while.
It wouldn’t be a Tchaikovsky novel if it didn’t come with all the important themes, and honestly, Cage of Souls is an ocean in this regard. One of my favorite things about Tchaikovsky is the patience and subtlety he brings by arraying his themes as a stained glass masterpiece, before smashing through them with a hammer he named THEME. In this regard, Cage of Souls feels like a spiritual successor to Children of Time and Children of Ruin, not only the delivery of his ideas, but the ideas themselves. He explores the adaptability and resilience of life in worlds that feel inhospitable. He blurs the lines between humans and nature, pointing so often at the stories we invent through cultural education. One of my favorite themes he just can’t seem to drop is the nature of a prisoner as cast out from society, and the liminal space they exist in from a biological perspective.
Tchaikovsky tends to portray nature outside the usual paradigm of competition, showing the incredible ways various species find their niche to avoid it. In Cage of Souls he rubs that ethos all over the remnants of humanity. Stefan is a man who has understood the world in one way, and through his journals, we see that so many people also exist with that mentality. Tchaikovsky diligently chips away at this perspective with each successive chapter, delivering ever more deliberate blows as the novel wears on. He introduces his concepts early, refining them and reshaping them over the course of the narrative, giving the reader a glimpse of the end, before taking you on a journey that shows a splendid menagerie of life. It might be tedious for some, to see so many loose threads unfollowed, but to me it feels like a blanket’s edge left for the reader to finish themselves.
In that space, Tchaikovsky explores the meaning and necessity of endings. They exist everywhere and everytime. Sometimes they are a bang, sometimes they are a whimper, and often enough, they creep up on you without you ever noticing. The desire to see things through into perpetuity is strong, but in order for the new to be born, the old must die. It doesn’t have to be antagonistic, but still it must come to pass. For Tchaikovsky, this is natural and should be greeted as if it were an old friend coming to give, instead of a fabled enemy coming to steal. It’s beautiful in it’s necessity, especially in a novel about the “end of the world.”
I don’t think Cage of Souls is for everyone, but it was exactly for me. It is introspective, funny, fluid, and resolute in what it wants to say. I can’t even believe some of the things Tchaikovsky pulls in this book (I’m looking directly at you Sergei, you wonderful man). Tchaikovsky takes risks that pay off only if you take your time and think about the book, something he kind of forces the reader to do, but I’m here for it. This book has cemented my desire to read as much of Tchaikovsky as this world will allow him to publish, and my access to books will allow. If you want something that shines a little bit of light in the darkness that is our world, Cage of Souls might not be the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a candle to help you get there.
Rating: Cage of Souls 9.5/10