Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review: The Cloud Roads

The Cloud Roads
The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not the usual sort of review that summarizes (aka, gives away) the plot. Rather, I want to talk about why this book made such a good impression on me, and the one thing that bothered me. The Cloud Roads is that curious beast, a book that defies genre labels. Mind you, I'm not saying it transcends its genre. I hate that phrase, because it implies that genre is a bad thing, and I have no problem with genre.

The Cloud Roads is impressive because it mixes genres in an interesting way. The book is set on a world called the Three Kingdoms that doesn't appear to be our own earth. The many and varied humanoid and non-humanoid species on it are clearly alien— not elves or fairies or dwarves or any other mythical creatures from assorted folklores. No, they are true aliens, and not Star Trek putty-on-their-noses aliens, but beings in a world where a single “ species” can have many forms.

The protagonist is named Moon. When the story begins, he doesn't even know what kind of creature he is, because he has never met any others like himself since he was quite young. The Three Kingdoms are inhabited by groundlings (creatures who walk), skylings (fly), and sea creatures (swim/live in the water). Moon has two forms, groundling and skyling, and can shift between them. There is no science in this shifting, as there is in Joe Haldeman's Camouflage. The change is clearly accomplished with magic, like the augery and a few other features of this world. For one thing, in one form Moon wears clothes and in the other not, and Wells accounts for this by mentioning that he had to learn to do that magic as well as the magic of changing his body.

Eventually, Moon meets several Raksura, other creature with two forms who can shape-shift at will. But the Raksura's alien-ness is not limited to shape shifting and the oddness (wings, scales, tails) of their bodies. No, their species has two main classes of beings, one of which is winged when shifted and the other not. In addition, not all Raksura are fertile. They live in communal “courts” where they are dominated by a reigning queen, a specific variant of Raksura, who is fertile. Queens mate with consorts, and while both are large, fierce fighters with a full compliment of wings, scales, and claws, queens are pretty damn scary fighters.

Queens fight over consorts, and mark their mates with a scent, so that other queens will leave them alone. But not all females are queens. It's not that they don't have gender roles, it's that they have multiple roles for each gender. The Raksura may be humanoid, but they are not human. Thus, Raksura relationships do not always occur in tidy pairs, and the concept of family is pretty much indistinguishable from community.

The bad guys are called the Fell, and they also shape shift and fall into multiple categories of beings, with the smarter ”rulers” controlling the dumber varieties. They are impressively evil in that they exist only to prey on other species, which they do quite literally by eating their victims.

If I have any complaints with the book, they are mostly about how creatures are named. Raksura is a perfectly fine term, but the two categories of Raksura are Arbora, who are teachers and mentors and whose alternate form is wingless, and Aeriat, who do have wings in their shifted (or non-groundling) form. Why, after building such a wonderfully rich and totally alien setting Wells chose two names that sound and look like English words for tree-related and air-related I will never know. They grated on me, pulling me back from her magical otherworld into the everyday, and I resented that because she did such a good job on everything else. Even calling the bad guys “the Fell” struck me as misguided. No other species had a particularly apt English adjective as a name.

I wanted more consistency and logic than I got in naming; even the three main categories of Fell annoyed me: rulers (smart ones), major kethel (the big but dumb ones), and minor dakti (small but still dumb). Rulers were always called just rulers, but sometimes the others were called simply dakti and kethel and sometimes they were major kethel and minor dakti. I kept waiting for a major dakti and a minor kethel to appear but they never did. If they only came in one variety each, then why did they need the major/minor distinction? It made no sense!

Of course, I am legendary in my critique group for complaining about characters' names, so it's not surprising this was the one thing that bothered me. I was even bothered by a language being called Altanic because I read it as Atlantic for the first six times I came to it.

But, nit picks aside, the story itself is wonderfully told. Moon is a great protagonist; damaged, prickly, but still soft-hearted, Moon hopes for good from the world but so often encounters bad. Wells does a good job of sketching secondary and tertiary characters in just a few sentences, so that the other “people” all feel real. The story has a good mix of action, dialog, and Moon's thought processes. The story is told from Moon's point of view, in third person so close and consistent you could change all the pronouns to make it first person with almost no re-writing. The flying scenes are particularly well done.

In short, I loved it!

Caveat for Kindle owners: The Kindle version I have had some bad formatting; I sent an email to the publisher about the errors in the book (mostly missing word spaces and some funky paragraph indenting). They suggested I should buy the trade paperback because it is formatted much better and has attractive graphics. I don't have good feelings about their ability to keep making money in the future.  This was some time ago, so possibly this has changed. Please comment if you had a different experience.

Addendum: Sadly, it seems I was correct about the publisher. They are attempting to sell their assets to avoid bankruptcy.

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