The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Cloud Roads
Recommended for: people looking for an unusual epic fantasy
Read from February 10 to 15, 2013
★★★ 1/2

Tired of the orphan’s heroic quest as he ventures into the world to discover himself and claim his birthright? Don’t give up yet–Wells has managed a satisfying twist on an old trope by creating species and setting that feel quite alien. Cloud Roads is certainly one of the most original fantasy worlds I’ve read in months, and the steadfast plot provides familiarity when navigating the strange races of the Three Worlds.

Moon knows he is different; he’s been unable to find anyone quite like him since his family was killed. Over the decades, he has tried living in solitude but inevitably ends up seeking companionship, even if it requires hiding some of his racial characteristics and quirks. He’s living his dual life in a village of ground-dwellers when his shape-changing flying-form is discovered. Preventing his change, they cast him out of the village and stake him out for the local beasts. A rescue provides a chance to discover and connect with his race, and ultimately tired of loneliness, he decides somewhat reluctantly to follow his rescuer home to meet a colony of his species.

Certainly much more follows; this is the barest introduction to a complex setting and a twisting plot. While Wells does indulge in setting description from time to time, she isn’t one to lay everything out in orderly fashion for the reader, preferring to show a little piece of the world, have an action scene and repeat. Because the world is so unfamiliar–giant predators, flying islands, a species bent on universal dominance–the narrative flow helps provide context without becoming overwhelming.

I generally like Wells’ writing style, but at times the language is on the less complex side of the scale. Don’t get me wrong; its more sophisticated than many, but it lacks the complex beauty of Kay or the sharp imagery of Taylor.

One of the more common reviewer complaints is a feeling of a lack of emotional connection. I wonder if that was intentional character-building on Wells’ part. First, because Moon seems to be a very ‘watch and evaluate’ type of being, which lends itself to emotional distance. I found myself liking him much later when the fledglings were introduced. Second, the sense of alien culture and being is very present, and it’s hard to create emotional intimacy with the outlandish. Finally, I wonder if the lack of connection also has to do with creating a species that is a little more colony-minded than our own individualistic one. Can land-dwelling mammals really understand a reptilian, avian or bee-like mind?

Personally, I did feel reasonably connected by the end, but it was definitely the (above spoiler) that helped me get there. There also isn’t any comfortable earth-like analogy that quite fits their race–not quite bird-like, although they fly; not quite reptilian, although they have frills, spikes and skin of overlapping scales; not quite bee-like although they have clear social and reproduction castes–so I suspect the inability to comfortably slot them into a preconceived space also creates a challenge.

Once I got over the strangeness of the world and caught on to the plot, I tended to skim a little. But that’s me, and how I read, and Wells kept throwing me into new setting so that I ended up slowing down to pay attention. She also created some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) reversal of gender dynamics. I confess, I rather loved it.

Three and a half stars, rounding up for uniqueness and in support of an interesting series. I’ll be reading on.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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3 Responses to The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

  1. Pingback: The Element of Fire by Martha Wells | book reviews forevermore

  2. neotiamat says:

    Just finished it, and generally enjoyed it, though it’s not quite Death of the Necromancer. Some miscellaneous observations:

    1) I didn’t have any problem with emotional connection. Sure, they were weird raptor-lizard-creatures with a caste-based hive organization, but Martha Wells is extremely good at painting characters, so they felt like people with comprehensible motivations, likes, dislikes, and so forth. Actually, now that I think of it, this felt like a hybrid of Epic Fantasy and a kind of YA “guy in a new school” story, with all that involved — I found Moon perfectly relateable in that he too was dreadfully confused about everything that was going on. Then again, I’m possibly more used to getting my head into weird characters than most people since I run D&D-style games.

    2) World-building is excellent, and I think Wells does the same thing here as in City of Bones — she creates a very strange world but makes it familiar through the use of a well-worn plot (although it’s more ‘classic’ than ‘cliche’). My only gripe is that Wells gives us precious little description of either the characters or the world, so most of the time I have only a rough idea of what anything looks like, past “weird.” It would have been fascinating to see what would have happened if she’d teamed up with a good illustrator like Scott Westerfeld did with Keith Thompson on Leviathan, since my best grasp of Moon came when I found a pretty good fan-art of him on DeviantArt ( & )

    3) Plot was a biiit slow, and like you I skimmed a bit, mostly the action sequences.

    Overall, I consider it a respectable four-star book and will definitely read the next one, but probably not right this instant.

    • thebookgator says:

      I thought Moon was rather accessible, considering, but I had noted some GR reviews that didn’t think so. You are right, your D&D experience might have put you in good stead. I think my friend at Cover 2 Cover had found some fan art and connected it to her review–you are right, some of it is great imagery.
      I didn’t continue on, although I did buy the second book because I would like to at some point (library doesn’t have it). I’m just less interested in a typical full-fantasy plot these days, so I’m waiting for the mood.

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