Book Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

Quick plot synopsis: Moon has lived in secret, hiding his shape shifting powers from the river valley tribe that adopted him. His form, a scaled winged creature, is so alike to the Fell demonkin that plague the tribes, Moon knows he’d be ostracized as Fell spawn. When Moon is left for dead after being discovered, he is saved by a fellow shape-shifter, a grizzled man who seems to know exactly what they are and the power they wield.  Moon returns to this stranger’s “colony” but what Moon doesn’t know is that he is crucial to the colony’s future survival.

My thoughts: At first blush, this looks like a mere rehashing of the classic “outsider discovers he is not alone, tries to find belonging amongst his people” theme woven through stories since the days of Homer. In actuality, Wells has invented a world so vivid and a set of cultures so diverse, this novel is one of the most original fantasy genre books I’ve read in recent years.

Wells crafts her sentences delicately, with a skillful syntax. I recommend you listen to this book on tape (if that’s your thing) because the audiobook version is quite lovely. Wells has a real gift for combat sequences, you feel as though you are watching the mid-air fights with your own eyes as Wells artfully depicts the action. I also give Wells props for being viciously honest in the brutality of animalistic combat – if you want proof that female fantasy authors can right gnarly fights “worthy” of the genre, Wells is an excellent example.

Similar to the Lord of the Rings, the real draw in of this story is the richly developed cultures of the peoples inhabiting the world. Moon’s shape-shifter kin, the Raksura, have a highly sophisticated matriarchy (!) and complex societal hierarchy that is endlessly fascinating to try to understand. You learn the Raksura ways alongside Moon, while peeking glimpses at other tribes and species throughout the Three Worlds. These cultures are all intriguing blends of social structures from both the animal kingdom and human societies. In later Raksura series books, you learn more about the the various other cultures, and it becomes increasingly obvious how intentionally Wells has constructed her setting.

Some readers might say the novel lacks a strong emotional connection with the characters… but I think those people are missing the point. The individual characters themselves are not necessarily supposed to draw you in (although I found many I loved) but it’s the Raksura way of life that really captures the imagination. It is impossible to resist falling in love with their ways, which makes Moon’s mission to preserve that culture all the more gripping.

The Cloud Roads is the first of Wells’ Raksura series, of which there are currently three books. For anyone looking for a pleasant deviation from the same old Tolkien high-fantasy novel, give this novel a try.

– E.B.

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