Review: The Cloud Roads

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

This is the new one by Martha Wells, who is by my reckoning one of the most underrated modern fantasists. I hadn’t heard that she’d written anything in a while, not since the The Fall of Ile-Rein trilogy several years back, and I’d feared she’d dropped out of the game entirely…

Wells is an anthropologist by training, and she really excels at creating non-earth worlds that feel very dense and real. Other authors might have more realized histories or cultures, but in most cases that’s because they’re cribbing from medieval societies on our world. Wells makes worlds that feel very unlike standard fantasy settings, but still provides them a sense of weight and history that gives them that juicy lived-in feeling. City of Bones (not to be confused with the book of the same title by glorified fanficker Cassandra Clare) is one of my all-time favorite fantasy books, largely (but not entirely) because of its extremely vivid depiction of a desert city that’s a mishmash of several earth cultures without precisely patterning itself off of any specific one. It was such an interesting place to explore that I’ve “written” several things that are thinly-veiled ripoffs of it, which is as good a sign as any that you’re on to something.

The Cloud Roads continues in that vein, with a society that’s just this side of prehistoric. That’s unusual, in and of itself — fantasy, despite taking place “in the past”, tends to sneer at hunter-gatherer societies, using them mostly as a source of noble savages and barbarian tribes for the “civilized” protagonists to feel superior to.

It’s also about non-humans, which is something I’ve been a little iffy about in the past. Few writers seem willing to write about non-human races without using them as a clumsy metaphor or foil for the flaws and foibles of humanity, or else they’re so human that there’s no appreciable difference. (Khat, the protagonist of the aforementioned City of Bones definitely falls into that latter category… he’s basically a human. He’s got a few extra tricks that help move the plot, but his worldview is human and and he could be a human without really changing the story much.) In The Cloud Roads, Wells splits the difference and makes a world where no one really has full claim on the term “human”… think of the ancient world, but if every tribe and nation was actually a slightly different species of humanoid rather than merely a different race of homo sapiens. This allows her to dodge the human-centric storytelling trap that ensnares so many fantasy worlds, where the non-humans are there, but they’re mostly supporting players to the humans.

And it’s about non-humans, too — their culture, their history… hell, the nature of their reproduction is a plot point.

As far as plot and themes go, The Cloud Roads takes up Wells’s fairly well-worn theme of isolation and trying to find a place to belong. Moon, the protagonist, is a shapeshifter who can change between a fairly normal-looking humanoid form and a strange winged creature. Having never seen another of his kind, he wanders around trying to integrate himself into the societies of other tribes, concealing his true nature. That is, until someone sees him changing form, mistakes him for a monster, and poisons him. At this point he’s rescued by another of his kind, the first one he’s ever seen, and is asked to join their society. Moon finds himself conflicted — these are surely his people, but he grew up away from them and doesn’t understand the customs, so he still feels like an outsider. Much of the story revolves around Moon trying to mediate these conflicting desires.

There’s action too, of course. Oddly, the plot feels a lot more… straightforward than I’m used to from Wells. Typically Wells’s endgames are kind of wham-y, with lots of crazy reveals, a flurry of action and fighting, and the occasional mind-fuck of an ending, but The Cloud Roads feels kind of tepid and… “predictable” has the wrong connotations, but there’s nothing particularly shocking there, at least not to a reader. (I imagine the characters felt differently.) It’s much more of a character study than Wells’s other stuff, and I’m not sure whether I like it better or worse. I raced through it, which is generally a sign that I’m really into what’s happening, but at the end I felt almost indifferent, which isn’t.

It’s apparently the first in a series, but it stands on its own well enough. It’s not among Wells’s best stuff, but it’s well-written and well-plotted and I’ve certainly read worse books — several in the past month, in fact! It’s probably worth your money if you’re interested in a well-drawn world.

I need to do a re-read of The Fall of Ile-Rein… maybe this year.

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