Book Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Moon has spent his life working to fit into the other societies, but when he finds his own, he has difficulty. I appreciated the way Wells balanced Moon’s need for acceptance with his suspicion and discomfort without making him come across as petulant or annoying. Actually, there a few characters whose disagreeable personalities initially seem like they will just be annoying and troublesome, but all the significant characters have purpose and reason and are able to change and grow with the situations presented.
Orphaned at a young age when his mother and siblings were killed by predators, Moon has moved from groundling village to groundling village trying to fit in. Unfortunately, his inconvenient secret always comes back to haunt him: Moon is not a groundling. He can take their form, but he can also shift into an armoured, winged, clawed, spined being that looks far too much like the Fell, the intelligent predatory species that feed on everything else in the Three Worlds. Moon knows he’s not a Fell, but has no idea what he is until he meets another shifter and agrees to go to his home to learn about his own species, the Raksura.
Moon is, unsurprisingly, very hesitant to get comfortable with what are apparently his own people, especially when he discovers that he has a very specific status among them that instinctually causes conflict. Add the ever present stench (literally) of the Fell. And we’re in for obvious trouble!
Don’t worry. The story is not quite as predictable as it might seem. Moon’s discovery of his people happens almost right at the beginning and we quickly move into the politics of his people, which we learn along with him, and deal with the Fell, who refuse to leave anyone alone and worse, seem to have even deadlier plans up their sleeve.
The plot moves along at a comfortable pace, but what really made me love this book was the incredible world that Wells has weaved, complete with very unique races of people. Moon’s travels have introduced him to several villages of groundlings and the Raksura turn to him for advice dealing with them. Many of the groundlings look somewhat similar or are accepting of outsiders, hence Moon’s ability to find places to live. They also have very unique cultures and Wells intricately describes them all through their appearances, their native language, foods and food preparation, building structures and living arrangements and even naming conventions. As the main species of the story, we learn most about the Raksura and the Fell, but I found myself wishing that Wells would publish a great big codex containing information and images on all the species we learn about within the book.
I loved the transition Moon makes. He begins the story living in a groundling village where we can easily relate to their human-like activities, if not their lizard-like skin and colours. Moon has spent almost his entire life doing his best to fit in within these groundling societies. But when he gets to the Raksuran court where he no longer has to hide his other form, instinct kicks in and watching him react and the others react to him was absolutely fascinating. Wells smoothly transitions us from the human-ness we understand, to a more animalistic society. Violence and dominance through violence or intimidation is not uncommon, but it is not purely bestial. The intricacies of the Raksuran society and how it differs from our own are truly a highlight of the book as they unravel through Moon’s interactions and relationships.
I particularly enjoyed the Raksuran male/female roles. It is a matriarchal society with significant power granted to the male consort, but while dominance battles do occur, they are never about gender issues. It was refreshing to read a book that did not require males or females to prove themselves worthy of their gender. In fact, I loved the way Moon, who by our standards represents an alpha male, could give himself over to the comfort of his mate when he needed it, without any implication that he was “less of a man” for doing so. Everyone in the society had their roles and could perform equal duties regardless of gender.
Wells does not skimp on the details of their physicality, either. Particularly in their winged Raksuran form where she skillfully describes the full range of their movements, even in flight and in battle where it could have been easy to skim over such detail.