The Cloud RoadsMartha WellsNight Shade Books
Trade paperback, 278 p., $14.95
Various e-book formats
What’s that, you say? You haven’t read Martha Wells?
Shame on you.
You’ve been missing out. And The Cloud Roads is the perfect place to find out what you’ve been missing. It’s a stand-alone, at least so far, although I hope it doesn’t stay that way.
This is a dense, complexly layered novel. And that’s a good thing. The story concerns Moon, an orphan who doesn’t know who or what he is. Moon is a shape-shifter, able to take either the winged form you see on the gorgeous cover, or a humanoid shape called a groundling because it’s wingless. In his wanderings since his family was killed, he’s never come across any others of his kind. The closest he’s come is a race called the Fell, who look a lot like his winged form. Only the Fell are feared and hated by everyone. They have the nasty tendency to move in, destroy a city, and eat the inhabitants. Not exactly the best of neighbors; when the Fell move in, there really does go the neighborhood.
Not wanting to be mistaken for a Fell, Moon usually masquerades as a groundling, only taking to his winged form when no one is around. Unfortunately, someone is, and he’s nearly killed before being rescued by another of his kind who has been watching him.
The other is Stone, and he’s amazed that Moon is alone. He tells Moon he’s a Raksura. They live in a colonies, like ants or bees, and have queens, warriors, and several other castes. Moon is one of the consort caste. Stone is also a consort, albeit a much older one than Moon. Stone’s colony is dying, and he’s been searching for more consorts to come and join it. And Moon is the only one he’s found.
And that’s when the fun really starts. Colony politics, at least in Stone’s colony, are multi-layered, and the role Moon is expected to play is not an easy one.
And that’s all I’m going to say. Part of the enjoyment of this novel was seeing how Wells unwrapped the culture of the colony, as well as the world, like an onion. The further I read, the more depth there was. There are enough characters for a Fat Fantasy. Martha Wells does more with character development in less than 300 pages than many other writers do in twice as many pages. Or even a thousand pages.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how I thought fantasy these days has more sense of wonder than science fiction. This book proves my point. This is a fascinating world, and I want to see more of it. (Please, Martha.) Her next book is titled The Serpent Sea, and will be coming out from Night Shade sometime next year. I hope it’s set in this same world. There are a number of races, not all of them humanoid, but none of the ones that were could really be called humans. They all had slightly different traits. Some had scales, some horns or tusks, some tails or claws. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Larry Niven’s Ringworld and it’s sequels, in which a number of different races inhabit a huge artificial world, with different races living in different areas. At times The Cloud Roads had that feel to it. A vast world waiting to be explored. We don’t see details of all the cultures, but they’re there in the ones we see up close. We get hints of an ancient history that seems to have been forgotten by much of the population. This was a fascinating place to visit.
I would also love to see this book filmed. With the technology used in Avatar, this would be spectacular. And this time the movie would actually have a story, not a plot outline of something that has been done a thousand times. The shape-shifting would be mind-blowing. And the aerial combat scenes….the mind boggles.
Which brings me to another point. There’s plenty of action in this book, the majority of it in the air. Martha Wells does action and adventure oriented fantasy like few people do. Her plots are complex, and so are her characters. The action and fight scenes move things along quickly, and it’s never dull.
To sum up. The Cloud Roads was one of the most enjoyable full-length novels I’ve read in a long time. The only other one I’ve read recently that comes close is Twelve, and that was such a different book that it’s hard to compare the two. So buy and read The Cloud Roads. And Martha Wells’ others if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.