Friday, February 22, 2013

Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells (3/5)

By Olga Godim

I was not enamored with this book although I realize that some of the points that caused my dislike might be exactly the same points that attracted other people to this unusual novel.

Story:  The story is entertaining, although not very original, and the pacing is okay. Most of the 3 stars go to the story. A young shape-shifter, Moon, is living with a tribe of hunters, camouflaging as one of them. He’s been an orphan for a long time and he doesn’t know what race he is. He knows he is different but he has stopped looking for his own people long ago. As far as he is aware, he’s the only one of his kind, so the camouflage helps him to blend in. Kind of. Not very well.

Eventually, the tribesmen found out that he is ‘other.’ Angry and afraid, they drag him into the wild and stake him to the ground to die. One of his own species rescues Moon and takes him to his colony. From that moment on, it should’ve been a happy reunion, a tale of Moon finally bonding with his own people, but the reality is much grimmer.

Moon discovers an unfamiliar community with a number of confusing traditions and puzzling interpersonal dynamics. Some of the members of the community accept him. Others reject him as an ignorant savage, an interloper. There are further complications: the colony is under attack by the bad guys, the Fell, and Moon’s experience and abilities are desperately needed.

He is not sure if he wants to stay. He doesn’t feel that he belongs here any better than he’s belonged anywhere else. He is an outsider everywhere. Still, he can't abandon his people in trouble. He promises to stay and fight until the crisis with the Fell is resolved. Obviously, a hero in the making, albeit a bit surly.

Characters: Moon and the other main characters are Raksura, a race of flying shape-shifters. From the author’s description, they resemble an amalgam of humans and reptiles with wings. I don’t think I’d like the appearance of any of them. Their emotions and reasoning are also alien. The characters in the story behave more like social animals or bugs than humans. They are too exotic to evoke real sympathy in my human soul, and the cold, slightly distant style of writing contributes to my emotional withdrawal. While intriguing on the cerebral level, no character touched me, and their plights felt more intellectual than visceral. It’s like watching a herd of antelopes on Discovery Channel or visiting a zoo. Fascinating animals, cute babies, curious facts, no heart involved. 

Martha Wells
There is also an incongruity with the protagonist Moon. He grew up a lonely orphan, kicked out of cities and settlements again and again, as soon as the people discovered that he was a shape-shifter. Often, he was on the run, forced to fend for himself on the outskirts of civilization. He should be a half-feral creature. Instead, he is a highly literate man who can speak and read several languages. He can even read maps. This is so incredible, I just discarded the fact.     

Antagonists: The villains, the Fell, are also contradictory, unbelievably so. On one hand, they are swarms of filthy beasts, a race bent on destroying all others. They don’t build, don’t create, and don’t have much of a culture of their own. They’re cannibals and even eat their fallen ‘comrades’. On the other hand, they devised a very sophisticated scheme for their future evolution as a species: a scheme involving interbreeding with Moon’s people and many-years-ahead planning. Only a well-developed society should be able to accomplish such a long-term project. My suspension of disbelief snapped at this contradiction.    

The world: The world is interesting, purely imaginary, captured somewhere after the primitive tribal age but before the era equivalent to ancient Greece on Earth. All manners of different races live in this world, seemingly at peace with each other, except the Fell. The abundance of ruins indicates that there were more before, but they have disappeared by now. During his travels, Moon encounters people with green skin and blue skin, scales and wings, fur and tusks, and everything in between. I don’t remember any other fantasy book with so many different species. Unfortunately, their sheer number makes my interest in any one of them rather mild. Like a kaleidoscope: the patterns are attractive, but each piece of glass on its own doesn’t have much value. The descriptions are absorbing though, both in their variety and their vividness. I think the descriptions are one of this author’s fortes. The book would transfer well into a Manga comic, preferably in color, or an anime feature.  

All the problems mentioned above severely curtailed my enthusiasm for this novel. Nonetheless, it was a captivating story, hence – 3 stars

Olga is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, Canada.  Her articles appear regularly in local newspapers, but her passion is fiction.  Her short stories have been published in several internet magazines, including Lorelei Signal, Sorcerous Signals, Aoife’s Kiss, Silver Blade, and other publications.  In her free time, she writes novels, collects toy monkeys, and posts book reviews on GoodReads.  Her first novel, Lost and Found in Russia, has just been released from Eternal Press.


  1. This isn't my usual choice of genre. "It’s like watching a herd of antelopes on Discovery Channel or visiting a zoo" <-That is an interesting comparison about the characters not being relatable. I think they'd just freak me out a little.
    Great review!