PROS: A rich new world with unique geography and inhabitants.
CONS: “Fish out of water” plot feels a bit familiar; a major plot twist in the narrative is not set up well.
VERDICT: A starring light of the fantasy genre recaptures her mojo by going in a new direction.
It would be days and days of travel before he could get back to more familiar territory. Once there, he had no idea. But there were plenty of groundling cities he hadn’t been hounded out of yet.
Then the wind changed, and Moon froze.
The Fell were still here.
He pushed to his feet, tasting the air. No, it wasn’t his imagination. He snarled under his breath. This day just keeps getting worse.
For those in the genre, Martha Wells is probably best known for her Nebula nominated novel The Death of the Necromancer. That novel, like several others she has written, were set in Ile-Rien, a secondary world that felt much like Western Europe at various stages in history, ranging from the Medieval to Edwardian eras. Now, with The Cloud Roads, Martha Wells tries something new — a full blown secondary world with no obvious connection to Earth whatsoever.
The Cloud Roads is the story of Moon. Moon is a shapeshifter who has, with limited success, hidden his nature amongst the sentient humanoids that inhabit “The Three Worlds”. Continually driven out and running from a nasty race called the Fell, Moon has not seen any of his own kind since his siblings and mother died. This changes, though, when the village he is living in discovers his true nature and sets about killing him. Instead, he is rescued by another of his kind, Stone, and offered a chance to meet more of the Raksura. And so Moon, having lived alone for so many years, learns that it is not easy to fit in with his own kind, especially given his own special nature amongst his race. And the Fell are still very much on his trail…
The peoples of the Cloud Roads reminded me of the Confluence Trilogy by Paul McAuley. Or, perhaps the various races of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. A wide variety of sentient humanoids live in Martha Wells’ world. Each of these are far more than just humans with fur or shells or gills, they feel, act and think in unique ways. This is especially true of Moon’s race, the Raksura. Social, sexual and gender politics and concerns, based on subrace castes, definitely require some adjustment on Moon’s part when he thrust into the midst of them. Similarly, the Fell are well imagined, especially once we start to meet Fell that break the rules that the characters and the reader had come to expect with respect to the nature of the antagonists.
The plot does follow Moon’s attempts to adapt to society with his own race, and the omnipresent threat of the Fell. While there are some neat twists and turns, some of this, frankly, did feel a bit familiar. Stone feels very much like an Obi-Wan character, existing to bring Moon to the attention of the Indigo Cloud clan but then conveniently debilitated when his active presence would make some decisions and resolutions much easier. In that respect, he felt more like a plot device than a fully developed character.
Moon, however, as our viewpoint character, is useful for introducing us to Raksura society, customs, mores and even biology. Also, since he is our viewpoint character, the development of various characters depends heavily on Moon’s interaction with them.
Some of the Raksura are ciphers, mainly because Moon has little meaningful interaction with them to flesh them out. As you might guess from a female writer, the two female lead characters, the rival queens Pearl and Jade, are very well imagined and developed.
There is a major plot twist in Moon’s history, though, that I do not think was set up as well as it could have been. Considering how important a plot driver the twist turns out to be, I thought it could have been foreshadowed better than it was. The plot twist makes sense after the fact, but as a reader, I think I would have liked a little warning, especially given how important a devlopment it turns out to be.
The setting and vivid worldbuilding of the Cloud Roads, though, is one of the strongest parts of the book. Not just the different races, as mentioned, but the physical details of the world and where these races live. Wells delightfully plunges into her secondary world with gusto, giving us everything from small hamlets to walled cities to flying ships. She takes time to get the details right; the various races of her world all live in different kinds of buildings suited to their nature. While I could have wished for a map, Wells makes it clear it is a wide and wild world she has only begun to show her readers.
And as always, Wells has a gift for language. Each of the characters we meet has a distinctive voice which comes across well on the printed page — be it describing the home of the Raksura or a desperate combat against the Fell, Wells never fails to deliver on evoking a scene and the action.
After an almost too-short book, I left the three worlds wanting to learn more of Moon, the Raksura and the strange hinted-at relationship between them and their enemy the Fell. Martha Wells is one of those writers who deserves more recognition and success than she has received, and I hope The Cloud Roads is the start of more of both for a talent in the field.