Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Cloud Roads' by Martha Wells

Many works of fantasy tell epic tales without a single non-human character in them. Most have largely human casts with a sprinkling of non-humans thrown in for effect - a few elves or dwarves or demons. But here we have a world, it seems, with no humans in it at all. The main character, Moon, is a Raksura, a shapeshifter - a humanoid in one form, and a somewhat reptilian winged creature in the other. His family was killed long ago, leaving him to survive amongst the ‘groundlings’, a variety of humanoid species (or races, perhaps), by hiding what he is, and in fact not even knowing exactly what he is, until he finally meets up with other Raksura. How he adapts to his new way of life forms the body of the story.

It's not easy to create a whole new species which feels believably 'other', and yet at the same time has enough recognisable human characteristics to be likeable, but the author does a brilliant job of it here. The Raksura are a social species, like ants or wasps, building colonies around a fertile queen, and with various different castes to fulfil the various roles. Queens, their consorts (fertile males) and warriors have wings, while the Arbora (drones or workers) are smaller and wingless. Yet in many ways a Raksura colony is very like hua man village. They bake bread and cook their vegetables, wear clothes and jewelry, fall in love and have sex at will, read and write, and so on. They also have mentors - historians and archivists who also have shamanistic powers.

The other species are just as well thought out, with an array of sentient beings of various shapes and sizes and temperaments, the Fell being the bad guys in the neighbourhood, being set, it appears at first sight, on destroying pretty much every settlement they can get their hands (or claws) on. They too are winged reptilian beasties and the Raksura can take them on, en masse, but the Fell currently have the upper hand. Wells doesn't go into much unnecessary detail with the world she has created, simply describing this valley or that range of hills or lake as needed, but there are numerous ruins scattered about which tell of civilisations long gone. I don't know whether these become important later in the series, but in this book they are simply there, structures and decorations crumbling into the forgotten black hole of unrecorded history. There are current civilisations, too, sometimes created in the ruins of the old, or in one case literally on top of it, where a species of sentient winged beetles has built a hive above a disintegrating city. I also loved the idea of floating islands, chunks of land which simply drift along on the air currents.

For all their non-humanness, the characters are incredibly real. Moon, in particular, is a wonderful mixture of shyness and suspicion and aggression, perfectly in line with his nature and upbringing, or lack of it. I was intrigued by the behaviours that came to him by instinct - his hostility when challenged, for instance, and the willingness to fight, which was common to all the Raksura, from the queens downwards. Despite the Raksura way of life, which necessitates a large number of characters, there were many whose individual personalities made them stand out - Chime, Stone, Flower, Pearl and Jade, for instance. The names sound odd, perhaps, but then it must be difficult to dream up names for all the children when they arrive in clutches of five at a time. It was hard to keep all the Raksura straight, though, especially the numerous warriors, hunters, teachers and so on, which made it more difficult to care when one was injured. And the Fell, despite the bestial nature of some of their castes, which seemed to do little beyond killing and eating pretty much anything, were given depth and reasons for some, at least, of their behaviour. It's always good to find villains whose objectives are purposeful and reasoned, rather than simply being evil for the sake of it.

This is not a book of epic scope, involving vast armies and the future of empires, but those who enjoy action will find plenty to satisfy here. The problems at Indigo Cloud Court, their pursuit by the Fell and their attempts to escape and form a new, safer colony provide numerous conflicts, both aerial and grounded. It's hard to describe aerial combat well and I occasionally got lost in the details, but it didn't matter. I liked that both the Raksura and the Fell turned to ingenious and creative methods to attack and defeat their enemies, rather than simple brute force or magic. There is magic in this world, but it's innate and low-key rather than dramatic, and it felt completely right to me. The ending leaves open enough loose threads for future books in the series, while tidying up this one nicely and bringing Moon's relationship with Jade to a very satisfactory point with a perfectly judged moment (which I won't spoil by describing).

I loved this book, absolutely loved it to pieces. It has all the characteristics I look for in my fantasy - characters I really care about who behave credibly, world-building that's original and well thought out, subtle magic and a plot which derives from these factors. There are themes of real depth for those of us who look for more than action in fantasy - about how you come to terms with who you are, for instance, and about fitting in, even when you're different. I found Moon's transition from outsider to someone who belongs, and his awkwardly prickly relationship with the Raksura, to be endlessly fascinating. The book was a real page turner right from the start, and as Moon and his fellow Raksura are hounded and attacked relentlessly and the pace picks up, I found it hard to put down. A great read. Five stars. And now I'm terrified to read the next book in the series; it can't possibly be as good, can it?

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