This post is a part of my 2020 Arthur C. Clarke reading project where I will be reading and reviewing all the nominated titles. You can found out my thoughts about this project in my introduction post: 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist: Thoughts, Predictions & Reading Project.
Genre : Science Fiction
Publisher : Head of Zeus
Length : 624 pages
Format : eBook
Rating : 2 stars
Publication Date : April 4th 2019
The sun is bloated, diseased, dying perhaps. Beneath its baneful light, Shadrapar, last of all cities, harbours fewer than 100,000 human souls. Built on the ruins of countless civilisations, Shadrapar is a museum, an asylum, a prison on a world that is ever more alien to humanity. Bearing witness to the desperate struggle for existence between life old and new is Stefan Advani: rebel, outlaw, survivor. This is his testament, an account of the journey that took him into the blazing desolation of the western deserts and into the labyrinths and caverns of the underworld. He will meet with monsters and mutants. The question is, which one of them will inherit this Earth?
The sun is dying, humanity is on the brink of destruction and only one city remains: Shadrapar.
Stefan Advani, a young scholar, has been condemned to live his last days on the Island, a place where thieves, murderers, rapists and political activists are sent to work until they die. No one is able to leave the Island set in the middle of the jungle. Populated by a multitude of dangerous creatures, prisoners have to collect the precious resources of the swamp without being killed by the wild animals or the guardians of the Island.
Of course, the book isn’t only about the Island. Narrated by Stefan, the story follows his journey to the Island, how he got there and how he is planning on escaping it. On paper, it sounds like an interesting story and, for most people it was (Goodreads’s average rating of 4.12 for 1936 ratings!)
My opinion is on the unpopular side.
I didn’t like Cage of Souls and I knew I probably wouldn’t at the end of the first chapter.
The main character is a douchebag. He’s arrogant, he acts like a knows it all, he feels superior to all the other prisoners, he’s misogynistic and passive to the point it’s infuriating. He doesn’t make a single decision in the book: he follows people around him, flees when things start to get dangerous, survives by sheer dumb luck. He’s so passive that I couldn’t even remember his name (I had to look it up before writing this review!!!) even after spending more than 600 pages reading about him from his own perspective. He’s basically the essence of a white privileged douche.
However, I can forgive a bland main character if I have something else to chew on. And, even if my first impressions of the book were lukewarm at best, I still had some trust in the author to give me something. Children of Time, another book by Tchaikovsky, is one of my favorite books: it’s a captivating first contact story that plays with lot of fascinating ideas. And, Cage of Souls has interesting elements as well which is probably why I was so disappointed by it. The ideas are there: the world is cool, the dangerous creatures haunting the swamp are fascinating and the way the entire society is structured is very interesting. A good portion of the book is about lost technology and how humanity is falling apart without it. It’s a very cool setup for a story, isn’t it?
The thing is: Tchaikovsky does nothing with all of that. He keeps on introducing cool stuff and then he leaves them behind. At some point, the characters meet the web-children, humanoid creatures who live in the heart of the jungle. They are able to understand humans, speak with them and they have a sort of hive-mind consciousness. They could have been at the center of the book; we could have learnt a lot more about them and the author could have explored how their quick evolution contrasted humanity’s decay. But no, every time Tchaikovsky introduced a cool idea, he discarded it after the end of the chapter. Instead of focusing on one main theme and exploring it well like he did in Children of Time, he decided to pack as many things as he could under one book. And, of course, he decided to narrate it all from the perspective of a bland dude that cared more about which “female” he was going to seduce than the state of the world. Ugh.
The writing was good, the ideas were there but I don’t see the point of this book and the 8 hours it took me to read this tome are forever lost to me. And for what? I don’t know. This book has been loved by many and, if you read Cage of Souls and enjoyed it, I’m glad it worked for you. Maybe, if I had not just read The City in the Middle of the Night, a book that deals with exactly the same themes (loss of knowledge, first contact, humanity’s decline) but in a much more successful way, I would have enjoyed it more. I will never know.