Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Moon has spent his life hiding what he is – a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself… someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community. What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power… that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival… and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save and himself… and his newfound kin.
Thoughts: In a time where it seems the majority of fantasy is dark fantasy, it was a real blessing to come across The Cloud Roads. Far from being dark, it carries with a tone I find very similar to Mercedes Lackey’s works: bright, but without being all sunshine-and-roses, if that makes any sense. The tone is light and not bogged down in making everything seem dark and gritty, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from violence, from mature subjects and presentation, from rich complex characters whom you want to follow the adventures of. Reading it made me feel very much as I had when I first started reading fantasy novels, full of expectation and curiosity. It was the kind of book that made me lose track of time, a real page-turner!
Wells did a fantastic job with the world-building in this book. Where most fantasy consists of humans as the dominant race of the world, the world contained within these pages has no humans. It has ground-dwelling races with a humanoid forms, but none of them are what we would call human. Each race is new, different, each with its own distinct culture and features. There are a good many races that aren’t even close to being humanoid and yet bear just as much intelligence and creativity. I want to give serious kudos to Wells for not falling into the trap of making, for example, the race of giant insectoid people as a barbaric and primative culture. Neither were the Raksura presented as the pinacle of society. They were one race among many, as were all races, and it was a treat to see this set-up done so well.
Moon was a good choice for a blank-slate protagonist, the kind who is unaware of his past and people. This gave the author a good way to explain Raksuran culture and physiology to the reader without having to make most of it part of the narrative. More than that, the information was presented naturally, subtly in places but more straightforward in others, and it worked very well. I’m a bit leery of blank-slate protagonists, as very often they’re little but an excuse for the author to wax eloquent about their newest cultural creation. But in the context of the novels, info-dropping was done well. It wasn’t only that the Raksura had to explain themselves to Moon, but Moon conveyed information to them about the groundling races they were ignorant of. The info-dropping went both ways, and never was it disruptive to the flow of the story.
So Wells clearly excels at world-building, culture-building, and has a fantastic ability to convey and alien world in such a way that the reader will not only find it entertaining but will also be hard-pressed not to relate in some way. But no book is perfect, and the biggest flaw I found in this one was the foreshadowing. The reveal that the Fell and the Raksura have a common ancestor came toward the very end of the book and yet was the opposite of surprising. I spent over half the book wondering alternately when somebody was finally going to mention it, and trying to figure out if I’d just blinked and missed the part where somebody already had. The fact that the poison that was supposed to work against the Fell also affected the Raksura was the big tip-off, as I’m sure it was meant to be, but the fact that no character questioned the connection frustrated me. I can understand not wanting to admit a connection to such a foul race of beings, but it wasn’t even a case of denial or willfull ignorance. It simply wasn’t mentioned. To me, that seemed poorly done, and out of character with the rest of the subtleties and careful construction that had been done through the rest of the novel.
Though it may seem like a relatively minor flaw, the poison was a major plot element in the novel. The fact that the Fell were trying to join with the Raksura was a big thing, as were theories that they might be able to cross-breed. Moon is presented as a sharp-minded individual who is inclined to thinkand say things that others wouldn’t; for him to not have even mentioned a possible connection seemed like a poor set-up for that revelation. It bothered me, and that frustration is what made this book sink from a 5-star review to a 4.
But in spite of that, I can still say with utter certainty that this is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time, and Martha Wells has found herself a new fan. I’m eyeing my copy of the sequel as we speak, wondering if I can manage to fit it into my reading schedule, because I don’t want to leave that world behind that the moment. If you’re looking for a richly-developped fantasy novel that’s still also a nice light read, then absolutely get yourself a copy of this book. You won’t be disappointed.