Author: Martha Wells
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publication date: March 2011
Paperback: 300 pages
Moon has spent his life hiding what he is – a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself… someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community. What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power… that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival… and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save and himself… and his newfound kin.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone… we think.
How did we get this book: Review copy from Night Shade
Why did we read this book: We received an unsolicited review copy of this and thought it looked great. Then Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and we just had to read it.
Ana: I don’t know how many “First Impressions” I have started by saying that I picked a book up based on its cover but here I am again: it was indeed what first attracted me to The Cloud Roads. Then, Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and sealed the deal. It has a slow start but once it picks up its momentum, the story soars 1 and I didn’t put it down until it was over.
Thea: Actually, the cover wasn’t what attracted me to this book – we received an early e-ARC from the publisher with no cover. I was turned on by the press release (there’s a sentence I never thought I would say), and the praise from authors like Sharon Shinn, Robin Hobb, and folks like that. Plus, the story sounded awesome. And now, after reading the book, I can safely say that this is a book worth its weight in author blurbs – The Cloud Roads is a wonderful little book, set in a fascinating world with solid characterizations.
On the Plot:
Ana: Moon has always been a lonely outcast ever since his mother and siblings died when was young. Trying to make his way into the world, Moon has lived with several different groups of groundlings (people who live on the land) having to hide his ability to shape shift and to fly. Trying is not the same as succeeding though, and Moon’s second nature is constantly and inevitably unmasked. Moon is forced to run away from his village in fear of reprisal (as in his shapeshifted form he resembles one of the Fell, the scourge of the Three Worlds). Even though Moon knows he is NOT one of the Fell, he also does not know WHAT he is. He is rescued by another winged creature, a guy named Stone, who reveals to Moon that he is in fact one of a breed of creature called the Raksura, and Stone invites Moon to join their community. But Stone fails to disclose upfront that Moon has a special place within their societal structure, and how important Moon is to the very future and survival of the colony. Moon has to make a choice on whether to help and join the colony or carry on being a solitary figure.
Plot-wise The Cloud Roads has a very simple, straightforward arc at its heart: it is about that Lone Hero who has to make a choice whether to help the distressed group to which he belongs to or to continue on his lonely journey; and it is about a race trying to survive against a dark enemy and how are they going to go about it. As such The Cloud Roads can be described as traditional Fantasy in a very fundamental level but it’s also a solid, un-clichéd traditional fantasy. In fact, this is quite possibly the best thing about the book, that it takes very traditional tropes and makes them fresh and imaginative, immersing readers in a world that is truly original and awe-inspiring.
From the imaginative scenarios created by the author, the difference races that inhabit the Three Worlds (all of them quite diverse in shape and colour – none of them human), the internal politics and colony dynamics of the Raksura’s colony that resembles an ant’s or bee’s colony in which the Queens rule and are the strongest members of the colony. Not to mention the different types of Raksura – lizard-type of people with wings and spikes and claws (I think the cover provides a great idea), to the wonders of the world itself, to the absolutely thrilling action sequences, The loud Roads is riveting stuff, a story well balanced between plot and characterisation or rather external and internal conflict and I loved every second of it.
Thea: I have to agree with Ana on all counts, especially where worldbuilding is concerned. What I loved most about this book was the different types of creatures and hierarchies Martha Wells introduced, with the Raksura as an almost hive insect-like society (similar to ants or bees), with queens that are the only Raksura capable of reproducing, certain winged warriors, mentors, and consorts, as well as Raksura without wings, called arbora. Certain different type of Raksura have unique abilities (mentors, for example, can scry the future and sense the location of other Raksura in their clan), and are a collective group. Moon, however, has been cut off from the Raksura since he was young and has no idea what he is, where he’s from, or even if there are any other like him. I loved these images of Raksura, shifting into huge winged, scaled creatures with claws, fangs and tails, just as I loved the intricate balance of power within the clan itself – with an aging Queen named Pearl, unwilling to give up her power to her younger daughter despite many still births and sickly clutches (or litters of Raksura) – and with the many other races that populate The Cloud Roads. Ms. Wells has created an intricate, strange and beautiful realm with her Three Worlds, with many races of groundlings – all of which are not quite human.
Of course, every world has their share of monsters, too, and The Cloud Roads centers on a main conflict between the ailing Raksura and the terrible Fell. Though similar in appearance and connected more closely than the Raksura suspect, the Fell are monsters that relish in chaos, death and destruction. Split into their own hierarchy of power and ability, the Fell are after something that the Raksura cannot identify – they have been approached by a Fell Ruler (the dominant member of the species intelligent enough to plan attacks) that offers a terrible bargain to the aging Raksura Queen, Pearl. Although the clan is torn between loyalty to the old queen and the need to flee (because there IS no negotiating with the Fell – they scheme and kill for their own ends), Moon finds himself embroiled in a struggle to lead the clan to safety. To fight the Fell menace, and maybe even finally belong somewhere.
The conflict and story, as Ana says, is very simple at its heart, but Martha Wells tells the story in such an easy way, and with so many wonderful details about the world and the creatures in it, that I could care less about simplicity. Sometimes less is more, and that is certainly the case with The Cloud Roads.
On the Characters:
Ana: There is a plethora of great characters in this book, starting with its protagonist, Moon.
Without spoiling exactly HOW (since this is an important part of the main character’s journey), Moon is special because he has a very vital role or position within the Raksura’s colony. That information plays an interesting role because it clashes with what Moon felt for his entire life: that he is NOT special. This is obviously, not new in terms of trope. But the author takes that and adds a nifty twist in the form of role reversal in which Moon plays a role that is usually (and I use the term loosely here because of course I have not read EVERY book out there) applied to female characters and I liked the dynamics of that especially when played against the two extremely strong female characters Jade and Pearl. They are the two Queens of the colony and as such hold power and strength in buckets.
And do you know what? I simply liked Moon despite his somewhat frustrating inclination to well, moon over things. I liked his search for an identity and I like the conflict that it sparked in him when he finally found one – how does group dynamics (and expectation and responsibility) affect someone who had lived alone for such a long time, in hiding? And I was rooting for him the end to find a place, for his friendship with Stone and Chime (a Mentor-turned-Warrior) and for his romance with one of the two Queens to work. 2
As for the villains, the Fell: I usually prefer my villains at least a little bit more fleshed-out but at times it is ok to simply have villains to hate because they ARE so freaking evil.
Thea: The characterizations in The Cloud Roads are certainly solid, at least on the Raksura (and certain groundlings) end. Of course, this is Moon’s book and his own personal journey. I have to agree with Ana that I really liked this character. A perpetual outsider with no idea where he came from or if there are any others like him, without any family or friends, Moon is an introverted guy with a single hope – that he will belong somewhere. When he meets Stone and learns that he is not some oneoff freak, but a member of a race that he has never met, the moment defines the rest of his character arc in the book. I loved his journey of self-realization, and the many (MANY!) struggles he goes through to become accepted. Because, as Ana says, Moon is special and a vital piece of the Raksura colony – but we won’t spoil that for you. Suffice to say, despite Moon’s specialness, others in the colony aren’t very trusting or welcoming. When problems with the Fell seem to escalate with Moon’s arrival, the Raksura are even more suspicious – and Moon himself has an interesting past that is revealed gradually (also very cool).
The secondary characters of the other Raksura are also well done, from would-be queen Jade, to the old but powerful Stone, to Flower and Chime (whom I loved the most, I think). The only thing about the Raksura I wasn’t crazy about? The names. But that’s just me. The most interesting and complex character besides Moon, however, had to be the stubborn Pearl. You’re never really quite sure what’s going on with the beautiful, power-slipping queen – is she merely trying to hold on to her court? Or is she looking out for the colony’s best interests?
Although I do agree with Ana that the Fell were lacking in any true characterization (more evil for evil’s sake as dastardly agents of blood and chaos), I do think they were mostly outsiders for this story – perhaps in a second book we’ll learn more about them. Maybe not all Fell are the same. Who knows?
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: If you can’t tell by now, I truly enjoyed The Cloud Roads and to be honest I am surprised at the dearth of reviews for this book around the blogsphere. It deserves a lot of praise and I hope it gets it. As for me, here is hoping for more books set in this world.
Thea: Ditto! I truly enjoyed this novel and wholeheartedly recommend it. I cannot wait for more from the talented Martha Wells – hopefully set in the same world. Book 2, please!
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Excerpt from chapter one:
Moon didn’t know what he was, just that he could do this. His body got taller, his shoulders broader. He was stronger but much lighter, as if his bones weren’t made of the same stuff anymore. His skin hardened, darkened, grew an armor of little scales, overlapping almost like solid feathers. In this shadow it made him nearly invisible; in bright sunlight the scales would be black with an under sheen of bronze. He grew retractable claws on his hands and feet and a long flexible tail, good for hanging upside down off tree branches. He also had a mane of flexible frills and spines around his head, running down to his lower back; in a fight they could be flared out into rigid spikes to protect his head and back.
Now he unfolded his wings and leapt into the air, hard flaps carrying him higher and higher until he caught the wind.
It was cooler up here, the wind hard and strong. He did a long sweep of the valley first, just in case Tacras was right, but didn’t see or catch scent of anything unusual. Past the jungle, the broad grassy river plain was empty except for the giant lumpy forms of the big armored grasseaters that the Cordans called kras. He flew up into the hills, passing over narrow gorges and dozens of small waterfalls. The wind was rougher here, and he controlled his wing curvature with delicate movements, playing the air along his joints and scales. There was no sign of Fell, no strange groundling tribes, nothing the Cordans needed to worry about.
Moon turned back toward the sky-island where it floated in isolation over the plain. He pushed himself higher until he was well above it.
He circled over the island. Its shape was irregular, with jagged edges. It had been hard to tell how large it was from the ground; from above he could see it was barely four hundred paces across, smaller than the Cordans’ camp. It was covered with vegetation, trees with narrow trunks winding up into spirals, heavy falls of vines and white, night-blooming flowers. But he could still make out the round shape of a tower, and a building that was a series of stacked squares of vine-covered stone. There were broken sections of walls, choked pools and fountains.
He spotted a balcony jutting out of curtains of foliage and dropped down toward it. He landed lightly on the railing; his claws gripped the pocked stone. Folding his wings, he stepped down onto the cracked tiles, parting the vines to find the door. It was oblong and narrow, and he shifted back to groundling form to step through.
Fragments of moonlight fell through the cracks and the heavy shrouds of vegetation. The room smelled strongly of earth and must. Moon sneezed, then picked his way carefully forward.
He still wore his clothes; it was a little magic, to make the shift and take any loose fabric attached to his body with him, but it had taken practice to be able to do it. His mother had taught him, the way she had taught him to fly. He had never gotten the trick of shifting with boots on. His feet had a heavy layer of extra skin on the sole, thick as scar tissue, so he usually went barefoot.
When he was a boy, after being hounded out of yet another settlement, Moon had tried to make his groundling form look more like theirs, hoping it would make him fit in better. His mother had never mentioned that ability, but he thought it was worth a try. He might as well have tried to turn himself into a rock or a tree, and after a time he had concluded that the magic just didn’t work that way. There was this him, and the scaly winged version, and that was it.
Additional Thoughts: This is our first contact with Martha Well’s books and we see that she has a backlist and we would love to read more. Any fans around??? Where should we go next?
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 7 – Very Good
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