PROS: More rich worldbuilding of the “Three Worlds”. A successful transition to a new style of plot from the first novel.
CONS: A few characters seem underdeveloped and even forgotten about. At least one late book subplot feels off.
VERDICT” Another excellent and wonderful view into the universe of the Three Worlds and its fascinating inhabitants.
The Serpent Sea is the sequel to The Cloud Roads (My SF Signal review here.) and continues the story of Moon. The first book, The Cloud Roads, was a story of discovery and a “fish out of water” as Moon, unaware of who and what he is, is first driven out of his home, and then brought to his own kind, the Raksura of Indigo Cloud. There, dealing with Court politics and life he is completely unprepared for, the threat of the Fell, ancient enemies to the Raksura, spur the development of not only the plot, but Moon as well.
The Serpent Sea takes place less than a fortnight after the events of the Cloud Roads. The court’s reigning queen, Pearl, has decided that the Court should be moved, and moved to ancestral lands for the Raksura, With the journey relatively uneventful, the discovery that the home has problems leads Moon and a group of Raksura to find a solution that will take them to one of the strangest places in the Three Worlds we’ve seen yet.
Following so closely on the heels of The Cloud Roads, the plot falls naturally from the events of the first book, and the characters pick up where we left them off. While the author does provide clues, context and information for people who have not read The Cloud Roads, and those efforts are above average, once again, its not recommended. The richness of this novel stems from the fact that we start just about at the endpoint of that last novel, and roll forward. Starting here removes some of that joy.
The virtues of the author’s writing is in full force here. In my previous review, I compared the diversity of the Three Worlds to Confluence and to Ringworld. Since then, and in reading this book, I think I can safely add Talislanta to that list. Talislanta is a roleplaying game property, a vibrant world with lots of diversity in cultures, races, and environments. There is no bog standard fantasy kingdoms here to be found. There is wonder and surprise at the end of every road, beyond every horizon.
The Three Worlds of Martha Wells is a lot like that. We see or get hints for at least another half-dozen races, and absolutely none of them feel like humans in rubber suits. And yet, they are human-like enough that the reader can understand and empathize with them as characters. Wells is not interested in alien races that are incomprehensible, but she is not interested in merely humans with a paint job, either.
Moon continues to develop as a character. Its good to see how far he has come from the Cloud Roads, and yet he is still to a degree an outsider who thinks differently than the other Raksura. Given how he lived among human-like beings for so long, he remains our viewpoint protagonist that the reader can and is encouraged to identify with. Although, it must be said, now two books in, a reader of both books has a pretty good handle on the Raksura, although Wells shows and surprises us with twists and revelations.
She understands that, despite Gandalf’s comment about hobbits, understanding a race of beings, especially Moon, is more than a few weeks or months’ work. And most importantly, Moon learning to understand himself. His relationship with Jade, sister queen of the Court, is one of the best things about the novel, even as they are separated for a good stretch of the book. The relationship map of the book is complex, and more importantly, changes across the course of the novel.
The plot is relatively straightforward, like the first novel, something I chided about in the Cloud Roads. This is not the same plot as the last time, and there are some twists and changes to the form that make this a fresher story for it.
Of course, the writing flows and flows delightfully. Characters are highlighted, worldbuilding folded in. I love to read this author’s writing. As here, when the Court is debating sending emissaries to a nearby Court.
[Stone] said “Indigo Cloud doesn’t have an alliance with Emerald Twilight”
Pearl dismissed it. “We’ll offer alliance. They have no reason not to accept.”
Moon managed to keep his expression blank. Emerald Twilight had no reason not to accept because Pearl hadn’t been there to antagonize them, the way she had Wind Sun, the court that had refused to help fight the Fell.
Stone scratched his neck, and added thoughtfully. “We almost went to war with Emerald Twilight, before Indigo Cloud left the Reaches.”
There was a startled murmur from everyone. “War?” Flower repeated, incredulous.
“Are you serious?” Jade demanded.
Pearl lifted her spines. “Was it something you did? Just tell us.”
Stone glared at her. “I was barely ten turns old.” Under Jade and Pearl’s concentrated stares, he admitted. “Indigo stole Cloud from a daughter queen at Emerald Twilight. I forget her name.”
“Stole?” It was Moon’s turn to stare. “What…how…That can happen?”
“We can only hope,” River put in, nastily. Drift snickered.
Moon met River’s gaze in deliberate challenge. “Do you need another beating?”
“Quiet, both of you,” Pearl snapped. She turned her head back to Stone. “Was Cloud taken?”
“Yes. The daughter queen took him when he was too young, and after a few turns, it wasn’t working out. There was no clutch yet.” Stone shrugged. “At least, that’s our side of the story. I have no idea if that’s actually true, or not.”
Bone shook his head, affronted. “Is this even in the histories?”
Flower groaned and rubbed her eyes. “I’ve never seen it there. And I am fairly certain I’d remember.”
This sounded serious. Nobody seemed to think that maybe Emerald Twilight would have forgotten the incident by now. Moon wasn’t even sure what they’d meant by ‘stolen’. Kidnapped, carried off? Like the Fell did with the Arbora? He didn’t need anything new to worry about.
What didn’t work for me? A few of the characters feel underdeveloped and underdone. The focus on Moon and a few other favorites, and the nature of the plot makes a few of the characters seem left out of the fun in developing them. One other criticism I have is a twist in the last part of the book. I saw that a twist was coming, although I didn’t predict the nature of it, and it feels like the twist is there for mechanical reasons rather than organically arising from the characters and their actions.
The ending of the book suggests that The Serpent Sea forms a complete diptych with The Cloud Roads. Moon goes from outsider unaware of his true nature to finding and building a home and a place for himself. His story has a nice and complete character arc. This is not to say that I wouldn’t say no to more books about and featuring Moon and Indigo Cloud, but in an age of interminable sequels, these books fit nicely together and don’t particularly need more direct sequels.
In fact, I’d like to see what else is in the playground of the Three Worlds. And, more worlds from Ms. Wells. Now that she has successfully created a completely de novo secondary fantasy world. I’d like to see more worlds from her keyboard.