Monday, December 16, 2013

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.60 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.97 / 5.00

In the Three Worlds there are three realms: sea, earth and sky. Each realm has creatures that live within it, although those in the sky realm are mostly forgotten by those who live below.

Moon has led his life on the run. At first he was protected by his mother, but when the family was attacked by a predatory species of groudlings he was the only one to escape because of his ability to fly when in his shifted form. His clutch-mates did not share this ability and were killed, as was his mother who remained to protect them. Alone he wanders from one group of groundling to another, trying to fit in but always doomed to being exiled when they discover that he resembles the evil Fell when in his shifted form.

All this changes when he is cast out again and rescued by another shifter who looks remarkably similar to himself. Stone is a lone Consort (breeding male) of the Raksura. He is long past his breeding years, but has been visiting the various Raksura colonies to find help for his own, which is failing. He offers Moon a place where he can live amongst others of his kind, welcomed as a valuable member of the colony. However, the Fell also have designs upon Stone’s colony and Moon soon becomes embroiled in a fight for survival amongst a people that he does not understand or trust.

Martha Wells was an author that I had not come across until I read her Guest Post for Women in SF&F Month at Fantasy Cafe. Since then I have had her on my TBR list, but it finally took the Women In Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End to put this book on my coffee table. I am only sorry that I ignored it for so long because it was a great read and I look forward to reading the other volumes in this series as well as more of Ms Wells’ titles when I can fit them in.  

One thing I always appreciate in Fantasy writing is a world that is well drawn, whether it is loosely based upon Earth at some point in its history or is totally alien. Ms Wells creates a pleasantly unique world, inhabited by a wide variety of interesting creatures and races inhabiting the three realms. Although we do not explore the sea at all, we see several examples of the groundling races, which show adaptations to various habitats and climates. They also display a variety or temperaments, beliefs and cultures, which were sketched out with sufficient detail without a heavy-handed need for exposition. By making Moon an outsider in almost all situations, Ms Wells was able to let us explore this world through his experiences and so the world building did not feel forced or boring.

Although we have no idea how the Raksura or the Fell are able to shift between two forms, I did appreciate attempts to explain some of the other more alien concepts that we encounter. Most delightful of these were the floating sky-islands, which we learn are supported by a special type of magnet-like rock. This is revealed because one of the races harvests the stones to ‘power’ sky ships in a very neat piece of alternative technology. The scientist in me is always happy to have a seemingly impossible aspect of nature explained by a relatively straightforward nod to science.

The Raksura have a fairly complex social structure, which adds to their alien appearance to make them distinctly non-human. In fact, they are rather reminiscent of bees or other social insects in their organization into colonies. They also have specific social roles depending upon their biological form: in some books we might have had a sub plot about the injustice of certain castes being down trodden, but here they are all treated as equally valuable and there is no feeling of suppression or exploitation. I appreciated this willingness to present an alien culture without trying to insert human thinking or prejudices into the mix. My only criticism of the Raksura and their realization was that they seemed somewhat complacent and insular: a feature that created the problems that drove the main part of the plot. On the whole they seem very conservative and wary of changing how things are done. This timidity did not seem to really fit with their evolutionary design because they are fundamentally hunters not farmers. When trouble arises they are reluctant to take decisive action and this makes them seem overly weak and helpless.

However, this rather unexpected passivity allows Moon to step into the role of Hero because they surely need someone to stand up and be decisive. He finds an ally in the form of the junior Queen, Jade, which was not an entirely unexpected plot twist. Indeed, I would say that their developing relationship was one of the weak points in the book. It was simply too easy for the young Queen to fall for our Hero and support him from the beginning. I would have preferred a little more distrust and coolness at first as they got to know one another, which would have seemed more natural for an established colony member interacting with a dubious stranger. However, many of the Raksura seemed to make snap decisions about Moon, trusting or hating him on sight, so perhaps this more a reflection of their psychology than a failure in complex characterization.

Moon is inevitably the most complex of the characters that we encounter, although he is not the only one to change and develop over the course of the story. His caution when faced with a new group of people is perfectly understandable because of his background and we learn that he had some pretty terrible experiences when he chose to trust people in the past. I thought that his changing relationship with the Raksura rang true and was handled deftly. He is a genuinely sympathetic character, so we are drawn to him and want him to succeed. The fact that he has doubts and concerns makes him more believable than some of those macho Heroes out there, although he can certainly kick some Fell butt when required. I like my lead characters to be more than the usual stereotype, so he was pretty much guaranteed to keep me engaged and reading.

I would recommend this title to anyone who likes their Fantasy worlds beautifully drawn and well realized. Some of the character work is a bit simplistic, but the plot will pull you along so thoroughly that you will not notice this minor issue.

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