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Reading Challenge Review: The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

A book with nonhuman characters (#7 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells


I wanted to like this book more than I did. It landed on my radar because of a recommendation made by NK Jemisin in a video chat I attended as part of Juliette Wade’s fabulous Dive Into Worldbuilding series. Any book loved by one of my favorite authors should have a few points in its favor for me, and there were definitely things to like in this book… but in the end, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out more of Wells’s work, at least not without further recommendations.

The book’s set in a world with a bewildering number of sentient peoples, most of whom seem to be basically humanoid with minor differences on human-like axes (like gold vs. green skin). But the main character, Moon, is different: he looks more or less like other people most of the time, but he can also shift from straightforward humanoid into a winged, vaguely dragon-like form (the book cover seems like a fairly accurate description). He doesn’t know anyone else who has this ability; he’s spent his life drifting from community to community, and whenever his shapeshifting’s discovered, he’s run out of the community because people decide he’s secretly a Fell, a member of the Evil Bad Race who have a similar look (the fact that the baddies are black bothered me a little (also see here) but I was willing to let it go by).

In the first few chapters, Moon meets another member of his race for the first time in his adult life, and suddenly he has a name for his species and a complex social hierarchy to integrate himself into. His people, the Raksura, have four distinctly different forms and a fairly strict caste structure, and (surprise surprise) Moon finds out that he’s at the top of it: he’s a consort, destined to be the mate to a queen and sit at the heart of a Raksuran “court.” But there are complications. The Fell are threatening the Raksura, and they have a dastardly plan that involves (gasp!) miscegenation.

I liked some things about this book quite a lot. The biology of the Raksura was different from anything I’d seen before, and I liked the complexity of their social structure, which reminded me of social insects. I also liked the parts of the book that showcased interactions between the Raksura and the various “groundling” races (another term that seems a little problematic, but isn’t questioned within the book itself by any race): it felt as though the author had thought about what it’d be like to have a number of sentient species, with various gifts, interacting on the same world. The glimmers we got of the world itself were also fascinating: among other things, there are floating islands that, if broken into tiny pieces, can be used to power floating ships. I love that sort of stuff.

What I didn’t like nearly as much was the central conflict between the Raksura and the Fell. Maybe this is an artifact of this being the first book in a trilogy, but the Fell felt almost cartoonishly evil to me, with no real motive other than to make life difficult for the other races around them and to seek out sex with the Raksura. Unrelatedly, I also found the sheer number of named characters confusing. The community Moon joins has dozens of citizens, and every one of them has a name, and since everyone’s name is a common noun and “clutches” (siblings) often get similar names, it was difficult to keep track of people who sometimes only appeared for a scene or two. A cast of characters might’ve helped with that.

After some reflection, I realized that what bothered me most about this book was the feeling of missed opportunity. Thematically, stories about characters seeking for their place in the world are some of my favorites (spoiler alert: I’m writing one), so I should have been drawn into the plot, and the worldbuilding is full of fascinating nuggets. But I felt as though the characters were a mostly undifferentiated mass, and the plot that showed promise in the early pages devolved at the end into a straightforward “good guys vs. bad guys” shootout. I also found the prose frustrating, overly wordy in a way that suggested insufficient editing rather than an attempt at careful wordsmithing.

I’m glad I read the book, and I will continue to look out for books with this kind of distinctive world. And if you like stories that focus their energy on driving the plot forward, and you like non-traditional fantasy settings, you might give this one a try.