The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

March 21, 2013 Reviews 0

  • Date published: 15th March 2011
  • Publisher: NightShade Books
  • Format: Paperback, 278 pages
  • Series: Books of the Raksura, Book 1
  • ISBN 13: 9781597802161 ISBN 10: 1597802166
  • Categories: Fantasy
  • Goodreads / Bookworld (ebook) / Kobo
  • Source: purchased

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 discovered and 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.

Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save and himself…and his newfound kin.

An exotic world, inhabited by the bizarre and otherworldly, forms the setting for this fantastic adventure that challenges the tropes of the genre. Its familiar – a story about an orphan finally reunited with his kind and forced to quickly learn their ways and save them from an ancient foe – and yet not – the world is decidedly foreign and keeps readers off-balance.

Martha Wells has created a fantasy world I fell in love with the moment I read the worlds floating island. There are deserts and rolling plains and forests, and every now and again a floating island will appear in the sky. Its called The Three Worlds, because it’s populated by creatures of the land, sea and air. There are lots of species – we only meet a handful in The Cloud Roads, and most of them very briefly – and surprisingly, none of them are humans. The races frequently make homes in ancient ruins left behind by long forgotten peoples, about whom I am insanely curious. They are terrorized by an aerial race called the Fell, who basically steal everything they need and kill wantonly.

The protagonist, Moon, knows he’s never met another creature like himself, and has spent his life hiding amongst the ground-dwelling species that inhabit the land. Eventually the truth comes out and he is driven out and attacked, and when yet another community abandons him (this time they stake him to the ground hoping wild animals finish him off), Moon is rescued by someone who tells him what he is – Raksura – and invites him to join a community of people like him.

The biggest surprise about the book are the Raksura. Sporting wings, claws and scales in one form but humanoid in another, they are a curious blend of avian and reptilian in looks and have a distinctly bee/wasp/ant-like social structure. Moon struggles to adapt to their way of life because they are so community minded, and readers will also experience discomfort trying to understand them. Martha Wells has done a great job in explaining their complex social hierarchy and the ways in which each caste is different from the others, and once readers have the Raksura all figured out, there are the Fell to contend with, who have an equally challenging society.

The Cloud Roads is stand-off-ish – it’s difficult to sympathise with the characters or establish a connection with them, and everything is so alien that one spends half the book playing catch up. This is part because it follows creatures that aren’t human by any stretch of imagination, but still hunt, read, write, and have a strong sense of community. I think it’s also because of the intelligent story-telling device the author uses – there are no information dumps, and the world building (history, culture, lore and mythology) is told slowly. I like it because it feels more natural to tell a story this way, but it means that readers are just as clueless as Moon, and he’s in so deep over his head it takes him several chapters to realise it.

Moon is an extremely likeable character, naturally suspicious and shy but quick to anger. Although plagued with the fear that he won’t fit in amongst his own kind, he makes an honest go at eking out a life among them, which I find admirable. I think it would have been easy for Moon to be self-pitying and prone to whining, but Wells has made him determined to succeed while keeping his insecurities intact. All of the secondary characters in the book ring true and defy stereotypes, although I would have liked Jade to have something going for her other than ‘strong, young, beautiful Queen-in-Waiting trying to prove her worth’.

The Cloud Roads deserves every word of praise it gets, and will be enjoyed by fans of high fantasy. I have enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series, The Serpent Sea and The Siren Depths.

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