Cage of Souls


Review: Heart of Darkness on LSD

Clearly my days studying Victorian literature scarred me deeper than I realised. Some part of me will trudge through any amount of haunting writing in that style if it provides an actual payoff to the fantastical promise and gothic happenings that were only ever hinted at in the likes of Jane Eyre. One example is the technically over long and none too exciting yet somehow marvellous to me [[B) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell]]. Cage of Souls is another.


I went into Cage of Souls completely blind. All I knew was I had read some of Tchaikovsky's work, this sounded promising, and it was free with my kindle unlimited trial. Best. Decision. Ever.

This is not your standard post-apocalypse fantasy. Or standard anything. It's like the fallout of your wildest D&D campaign had a lovechild with [[B) Heart of Darkness]]. The sun is dying and the last city on Earth is tearing itself apart. Stefan, our narrator, is your bard now sentenced to life imprisonment on The Island and we get to see life in the hellish prison unfold between detours back into his past as a snobbish academic, desert explorer, hunted fugitive in an underground society, and finally change-bringer as the world, and Stefan, evolves.

Tchaikovsky is the Game Master pulling the strings, dribbling out worldbuilding organically from the beginning, which feels like a weirder Colonial era expedition, to a truly apocalyptic future featuring zoological wonders, mind energies, The Transforming Man, fungus cavern warfare with shield generators, and a city-desolating weapon.

The World

Maybe it was because I read _Inbox/King Leopolds Ghost not too long ago but from the opening on a steamboat coasting through a twisted jungle, Cage of Souls struck me as the twisted, far future, weird descendant of [[B) Heart of Darkness]]. Not what I expected in the best possible way. It is both haunting and hopeful, crushing and yet wonderful. Total devastation or a fresh start depends on how narrowly you define the world. For most of the characters, that is very narrowly indeed until by the end it is blown wide open. And that is just the macro level.

On the micro level, ideas ooze from every page, burrowing into your brain with every description of the both old and freakishly new world. To put things in perspective, an eight foot USSR cosmonaut trying to rebuild his time machine while working a fungus farm in a sprawling underworld is just a passing nugget of backstory. Seriously, this thing is dense. And it's a good thing it is. Cage of Souls is not a short tale or a particularly swift moving one. If you are looking for an action packed apocalyptic prison escape, look elsewhere. If you want to get familiar with a cast of deeply flawed characters in a failing world navigating a world of weirdness and terrifying wonder, then this is the place.

Also, unlike some idea-dense, weird fiction which like to rattle off zoological oddities but tend to fall down at the actual 'plot' bit (cough [[B) Annihilation]] series. Jeff VanderMeer cough), Cage of Souls actually pulls together a compelling tale to top it all off too.


I have never read a work of sci-fi like it and can't bear to give it anything but 5 stars. Could it lose at least 20% off the length without suffering? Yes. Are the characters mostly all shades of annoying and occasionally repetitive? Indeed. Does it occasionally veer dangerously close to traditional fantasy with a certain over the top invincible murderer? Possibly. And yet I loved ever minute of it. Is it for everyone? No. But do yourself a favour and at least try Cage of Souls. You may just find it difficult to escape.


  • Tie to [[!Drip Drop]]?

Concepts & Themes

  • "He was one of the best examples of the principle that power is at its greatest when not actually being used."
  • "I was too caught up in my figures. I didn’t notice what was going on. I was only doing my job, and suddenly that was the wrong thing to do."
  • "The historians do not realise, when they look into the sky, they are looking into the past. The light from those stars is older than you or I, and some of it is older than the Earth."
  • "Like every other innovation of the rich, though, this tinkering gained its power from being seen and admired. Every inner change had an outer transformation to signal it."
  • "One of the Academy Masters once said that nobody ever made a statue of a man running away. My answer to that is that very few living men get statues."
  • =="Just because we cease to look does not mean the world stands still."==
  • "Living in a cage teaches you helplessness."
  • remorselessly positive
  • =="Any devious plan should be at least seven parts truth to three parts fabrication."==
  • "I sat there assured of my superior intellect and made the most calculated judgement calls, and I lost everything except my shirt."
  • =="...people fear the unknown, and those used to control fear that which they cannot."==
  • =="If you try to stop someone doing something, even for a perfectly obvious reason, they will assume there is some great secret you are trying to keep from them."==
  • "His idea was a worthy one, but he failed to take into account that, ==when you set out to change things, the things you want to change push back.=="
  • "You see, we had never even thought about anyone outside our social circle having any issues with the book."
  • "There is no such thing as inevitability so long as there is at least one living cell left."
  • =="Culpability whetted a sharper edge than empathy."==
  • "“Every human being has the inclination and the capability to destroy without conscience or remorse,” Trethowan declared sharply. “The only variable is how deeply it’s buried. ==Don’t look down on the thugs of the Island. You’re all like that. It just takes the right stimulus.”=="
  • "- “I thought that you would be more… studious.” He spat again. “Bugger studious. You can’t tramp about in deserts and jungles being studious. Studious is for people who stay at home and do sod all except read other people’s books and write critiques. You and me, Stef, we’re men of action. Practical men. ‘How to Save the World’ indeed. ==You don’t save the world by being studious.==”"
  • “War,” said Sergei, “is just capitalism by other means.”
  • =="One can only live with random violence for so long before the shock wears off."==
  • "Her methods were suitable to the domination of individuals, the Marshal’s to whole bodies of people."
  • "“Wardens, prisoners. Us, them. I’m not going to be free until I get rid of it all, Stefan. ==You need to be free inside your head as well.==”"
  • "It exists for itself only, its own downward spiral to oblivion. It exists only to imprison the minds of those who dwell within it, so that their world shrinks until it holds nothing but their own desires, and they fight to stop you showing what’s beyond the bars."
  • =="We must be careful what we become when we seek to change things. An old principle of physics: if you push, you yourself are pushed in turn."==
  • =="Astonishing how a species-wide extinction event can pale before the knives of personal tragedy."==

Scrapbook Concepts

  • The white desert #locations
  • =="We dreamed in time to its artificial heartbeat."==
  • Birds with necks like serpents #creatures
  • Web-children #creatures
  • Island prison of cane bars and rope. Much bigger than it looks. Floating in swamp. Relies on massive engines and pumps to keep it afloat and not listing wildly. Higher levels have solid walls, cells are all completely see through bars. #locations
  • The mists that hung about the jungle were the colour of blood.
  • "After a week or so I would have the “Island eyes” the same as everyone else."
  • This is the oubliette, the cage of souls.
  • "The cartographer, the bibliophile, even the creature known as Faith, but the dreams took me inevitably to ==the Transforming Man==, and again I tried to turn away." #characters
  • People believed that the stars were a secret language the future was written in.
  • "There was a horrible soft quality to him, as though he might have no bones, nothing more than a pale, smooth fungus in the shape of a man." #fragments
  • ==A brawling lawyer who looks like a pirate== #characters
  • Cartels and gangs with own lawyers for making agreements with each other #setting #fragments
  • A woman with an ogre’s strength and looks. Huge. Put in men's prison and snapping necks. #characters
  • City with no animals. All 'Vermin' exterminated on sight #locations #fragments
  • Especially a kind of fungus that grew on anything, including people.
  • ==“In the dead of night, you can hear things speaking to one another. Things that were never human.”==
  • It is the ant scrawling graffiti on the ankle of the giant. --> ==Graffitied titan who will want revenge when he wakes== #creatures
  • "One ancient theory was that the planet was aware, a great living world-mind. If so, then that mind has woken up." #setting
  • "Being sacrificed to some great pump-god" --> worship pumps a mechanical god that keeps them afloat #fragments
  • "Apparently, they have serious rituals for which getting solemnly and devoutly drunk is all part of it. They fiddle with their brains so they can drink forever without falling over." #fragments
  • "Tribes of gill-people, snakes with human faces, stones that could speak, all the usual." #setting
  • =="Giant lobsters were surely not an unthinkable complication."== Lobster the size of boat #creatures
  • "The Governors of the Island had long given up mapping the boundaries of land and water, for such maps were never good the second time round."
  • "Cities drowned in the mire, so that a boat had to pick its way through the rooftops; places of death where invisible rays from ancient machines killed any living thing with blindness and sickness;" #locations
  • “The Ancients’ Ancients”,
  • “Stefan Advani, you are being sentenced to an indefinite time Below for the crime of causing an affray. I invite you to provoke me into killing you.”
  • A world of sound only. Cells in the dark. Something terrible happening unseen next door #fragments
  • Weaver crabs: the hand-sized males seek out and find food, which they attack, whilst releasing a scent to attract the huge, deadly female. #creatures
  • Books tell of places known as “the Queen of Cities” or “Empress of Cities”. Shadrapar was the Widow of Cities. #locations
  • The Last of All Cities #locations
  • "If you ventured down to the tide’s edge you would see a rolling expanse of black fluid out as far as the eye could see, and everywhere across it you would see the bodies: of fish and marine creatures, and the occasional luckless human being." ==A poisonous ocean== #locations
  • Rengens - Alley children abducted by cosmetics factories and reshaped into living advertisements. #fragments #creatures
  • Giant, ancient weapon. Prime landmark in city. No one knows what it does or how it works. Good to be 'Born in the shadow of the weapon' #locations
  • "A master of the Shadrapan game of avoiding his creditors which was practically our civic sport."
  • "A likely lad with a sharp mind could get himself apprenticed to a mobster just as easily as he could to an engineer."
  • "The Blue Tower, with its mountings at the top for a great diamond lens long since taken away;" #locations
  • =="Illian de Gancer (a beautiful, delicate flower, and twice winner of the Academy knife-fighting belt)."== #characters
  • The Wasted Convent, worshipping the wasted one #fragments
  • Emil was not a perceptive nor a sensitive man, and he could evidently not tell which way the wind was blowing even at gale force.
  • The Angels. Enforcers with shield generators like wings.
  • ==A mimicry monster that picks up prisoner slang.== "So what are you in for? The Marshal is going to toast you." #creatures
  • "The spires rose out of another lake, stretching some fifteen, twenty feet into the air. Irregular, twisted pillars of pitted metal, the years had scarred and corroded them to a purplish black." Sunken in jungle swamp
  • the Commissar of Angels #characters
  • ==Duelists with lawyers who contest every hit before judge== #fragments
  • Some historians even think we tinkered with the sun!
  • When he was under stress he had his own speech: a heavy, murmuring tongue unfamiliar to everyone.
  • ==Executive Officer of People’s Collective==
  • Make sure someone like you before then, or ==Organ Donor Boys== will get you.”
  • ==The Temple of the Last Day. Ancient temple with mechanical spider caretaker. Watches over glowing bubble with giant man frozen inside. The Coming Man.== #locations
  • "Underworld was archaic transport systems, sewers and old conduits, shelters and war bunkers and concealed laboratories, cellars, buried storehouses and once-secure vaults."
  • Thieves guild: The Friendly Society #fragments
  • =="The Meat Packers ran a black market surgery, and the implications of this made me shudder. The Friendly Society, conversely, were thieves, raiders of surface"==
  • "The depths belonged to the Fishermen and a few other bold factions. They fished for the relics of lost technology"
  • "the implanted hand-knives of the Packer subsidiary, the Meat Carvers"
  • the Alchemical Brethren
  • Adventurer with man-sized crossbow across back #characters
  • ==“The Shell People,”== Charno suggested. He was setting up that immense crossbow on a three-legged stand. “No such thing,” Giulia snapped. “Just a legend.”
  • Thieves - The Friendly Society, the Exceptionals, even the Ascendants whose larceny was grounded in their bizarre religious beliefs.
  • "It moved like the lightning it contained."
  • The Broken Folk #creatures
  • Electric Gangsters, Fishermen, Proud Walkers, Meat Packers, People of the Scarlet Sash and members of a dozen other factions, #fragments
  • Old explorer living with tribe who don't listen to him #characters
  • "The world seeks someone to record its dying hours.”
  • "The silence was a thing: an unliving but animate thing."
  • =="The Weapon’s roots had been vast."== - Climbing underground giant weapon that was discharged and vanished along with everyone in city #locations
  • "Perhaps they have built a great boat in which to sail the heavens and find another home,"
  • The wounded god #creatures