Sunday, March 6, 2011

“The Cloud Roads” by Martha Wells (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Martha Wells Website
Order “The Cloud RoadsHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Martha Wells is the author of nine previous novels including The Element of Fire, Wheel of the Infinite, the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, and The Death of the Necromancer which was a finalist for the Nebula Award. She has also had short fiction published in Realms of Fantasy, Black Gate Magazine, Lone Star Stories, and the Tsunami Relief anthology, Elemental.

PLOT SUMMARY: Moon has spent his life hiding what he is—a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the groundlings with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again discovered and cast out by his latest adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself—someone who seems to know exactly what he is—who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community.

What this stranger doesn't tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power, that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony's survival, and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell.

Now, Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save himself . . . and his newfound kin...

FORMAT/INFO: The Cloud Roads is 288 pages long divided over twenty numbered chapters. Also includes two Appendixes, one about the Raksura and one about the Fell. Narration is in the third-person, exclusively via the protagonist Moon. The Cloud Roads is self-contained, but a sequel titled The Serpent Sea will be published in 2012. March 2011 marks the Trade Paperback publication of The Cloud Roads via Night Shade. The eye-catching cover art is provided by Matthew Stewart.

ANALYSIS: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells is a novel that immediately grabbed my attention because of the cover artwork, but the real reward is the book itself with its rich and inventive world-building, seasoned writing, and entertaining story.

World-building by far is the novel’s most striking attribute. Teeming with exotic wildlife (vargit, draughtbeasts, lopers, cloud-walkers), plants (grenilvine, greenroot, three-leafed purple bow) and intelligent species (Cordans, Sericans, the golden-skinned, white-haired Islanders; Dwei), not to mention sky-islands, wind-ships and a rotating city, the Three Worlds is a fascinating place to explore. Vividly brought to life by Martha Wells’ descriptive prose and vibrant creativity, the highlight of this imaginative fantasy milieu are the Raksura and the Fell.

Raksura are shape-shifters who can shift between a groundling form and a scaly, long-tailed form with “retractable claws” and “manes of flexible spines and soft frills”, and are part of an interesting society in which roles (teachers, hunters, soldiers, mentors, warriors, consorts, queens) are determined by breed (flightless Arbora, winged Aeriat) and bloodlines. The Fell are a shape-shifting race somewhat similar to the Raksura in appearance and their different classes (male rulers, female progenitors, kethel, dakti), except they are considerably more beastly and like to “prey on other intelligent species”, thus making the Fell hated and feared throughout the Three Worlds. Appendixes on the two species are provided at the back of the book, which are helpful because the entire novel is basically centered around the conflict between the Raksura and the Fell.

Plot-wise, the story in The Cloud Roads is fairly straightforward and predictable with a number of familiar plot devices and fantasy tropes utilized throughout the book—the traitor whose identity is hidden by misdirection, the protagonist’s forgotten past come back to haunt him, the orphan who discovers his “extraordinary lineage”, et cetera. Furthermore, the themes explored during the story are common ones, which include topics like the lonely outsider trying to fit in, acceptance, social status, love and self-preservation. Yet, for all of its familiarity and predictability, The Cloud Roads is a well-told novel thanks to crisp pacing, exciting action—specifically the battles between the Raksura and the Fell—and deft storytelling.

Unfortunately, The Cloud Roads does have a few flaws, starting with the novel’s characterization. While Moon—the solitary Raksuran with no clan—is likable and sympathetic as the main protagonist, the author doesn’t do a very convincing job explaining or expressing the reasons and motivations behind Moon’s thoughts and actions. Like why Moon is so reluctant to join the Indigo Cloud Court when it’s all he’s searched for his whole life, or what changed his mind about joining the Raksuran clan, or what caused him to fall in love, and so on. From a general sense, I can understand why these things happened because of my familiarity with this kind of story and themes, but Moon’s thoughts and actions were unconvincing when seen from his perspective.

To make matters worse, the supporting cast (Stone, Chime, Flower, Jade, Pearl, etc.) is largely one-dimensional with little to differentiate one character from another apart from their different classes—Stone is a consort, Chime is a warrior, Flower is a mentor and both Jade & Pearl are queens. However, I felt the Fell made interesting villains, partly because of their relationship to the Raksura, and partly because their actions had a purpose behind them that was not completely evil and unsympathetic. At the same time, other elements that did not work so well in the novel included dialogue that felt unnatural and out-of-place at times, and weak attempts at humor.

CONCLUSION: I’ll be honest. I had never heard of Martha Wells before and actually thought The Cloud Roads was her debut novel. So it was a little surprising to learn that Martha Wells was actually the author of several novels and short stories, with her first published fiction dating back all the way to 1995. The real surprise though is how I could have overlooked the author in the first place. If The Cloud Roads is any indication, then Martha Wells is a very talented and creative writer, someone I should have been reading all of these years. It’s a mistake I plan on correcting as soon as possible. In the meantime, I urge anyone who has never read or heard of Martha Wells before to give The Cloud Roads a look. Even with its issues regarding characterization, dialogue and humor, The Cloud Roads is a terrific fantasy novel that stands out due to imaginative world-building, accomplished writing and engaging storytelling. For everyone else, The Cloud Roads is a proud example of what the genre is capable of producing...

Some Updates and More 2011 Titles of Interest

With The Sea Watch read and reviewed, The River of Shadows in my hands and to be read soon and with Embassytown in the mail, I have 3 of the 5 books of my top original top 5 expected list.

Also the Greg Egan Orthogonal series debut has a name and cover - The Clockwork Rocket - and a firm publication date in July from Night Shade, while The Last Four Things is now the one near future book (UK release is April) that is a must for me.

A little to my surprise, How Firm a Foundation has a September publication date despite being finished only recently and still in edits - no cover yet though - and of course Heirs of the Blade is due in August.

Right now the new revised top expected books from 2011 that I do not have are:

The Last Four Things by Paul Hoffman
How Firm a Foundation by David Weber
Heirs of the Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan


As noted before I keep and continually update a post with all the 2011 releases I finish with links to reviews and/or comments - with the limitations mentioned there (essentially I include only English language novels or anthologies/collection published in 2011 regardless of genre, but not non-fiction or foreign language books) and as of today I have read 30 such titles with several more I started and will finish in the near future.

So far in fantasy there are three books that have a claim at my number 1 of 2011 and three more that will be a top 25 for sure, with Naamah's Blessing currently being the tentative top 2011 book of mine, so wonderful it was. Of course The Hammer and The Sea Watch are the other two, while The Soul Mirror, The Book of Transformations and The Dragon's Path are the top 25 A++ caliber fantasies of 2011 in addition to the previous three.

In sf Leviathan Wakes reigns unchallenged for me so far but next week comes Embassytown, so we shall see. So far no other genres (historical or literary fiction) have a book in my expected top 25, though I've read two excellent historical fiction ones that will be in my highly recommended list for sure.

Also this year has been a strong independent authors books for me with two such already on the highly recommended list and quite a few ones I expect later in the year with great potential, not to talk of the unexpected ones...