Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Published: Night Shade Books, 2011
Series: Book 1 of Books of the Raksura
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

“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 he 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 the shape-shifter 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.  ~ Night Shade Books
Completely independently, I happened to come across the Raksura series and the Murderbot Diaries at roughly the same time.  They seem very different to have come from the same person! I’ve read the first two books of the Raksura series so far, so I bumped up the review of the second book to be for next week. 
My Thoughts:
I see The Cloud Roads as the kind of book that has crossover appeal for Adult and YA target demographics, though it is marketed as an adult fantasy novel.  At the center of the novel is a self-realization arc for the main character, Moon. Though he is already biologically an adult, his personal growth feels in many ways like a coming-of-age story. Moon knows virtually nothing about himself, his species, and his origins, and we follow him as he slowly learns, opens up, and comes into his own in Raksuran society. In addition, the writing style is concise and direct, with lots of action and dialogue.  The story moves very quickly, and the prose is easy to read.
I got the sense that the world of The Cloud Roads was enormous, and that only a tiny fraction of it was involved in this first novel.  This seems to leave plenty of room for new places and new people to come into the story later in the series.  In this first book, most of the emphasis is on the Raksura, though we also get some information about the villain species, the Fell.  I’m not typically a big fan of stories with entirely evil species, but in this case I appreciate that it allows for a relatively simple external conflict to pair with Moon’s more complicated internal struggles.  As for the Raksura, I really enjoyed reading about their biology and culture. Members of different castes have different available shape-shifting forms, and I thought the attention to how their bodies influenced their mannerisms and activities gave the characters a good sense of physical presence as non-humans. There was a lot of information and many named minor characters to keep straight, but I feel like this will get easier as I continue in the series.
One thing that I especially liked about Raksuran culture was the partial inversion of common human gender roles and stereotypes. A person of Moon’s caste (a consort) is valuable primarily for his fertility, and is expected to be moody, delicate, flighty and emotional. While Moon is indeed kind of moody and emotional, which I think is understandable given his background, he doesn’t fit with some of the other expectations.  For instance, having grown up alone, he is accustomed to hunting and fighting, and he is not exactly delicate. If he were a woman in a society with “traditional gender roles”, I think he’d be considered an awkward tomboy. I found it interesting to see a society that not only inverts some of our world’s stereotypes, but also then challenges them within its own framework. At the end of The Cloud Roads, I was eager to see more about how Moon’s new community would continue and how they would address internal issues that still need to be resolved.    
My rating: 4/5 
The Cloud Roads is the entertaining first book of a series about shape-shifting Raksura, and the difficulties their people encounter in a fantasy world.  This book follows Moon, a young shape-shifter who grew up in ignorance of his heritage, and who is welcomed back into a troubled Raksuran community.  I enjoyed the level of detail with which Raksuran biology and society are imagined, and I sympathized with Moon as he tried to learn to fit into their culture. I especially liked the partial inversion of human gender stereotypes with respect to Moon’s caste and character.  This was a fast-moving book, and it left me eager to learn more about this world in the rest of the series!

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