I love Sean Stewart, and I wish he hadn’t given up on writing fantasy. His books are always a treat and pay back tenfold the effort put into them by the reader. Clouds End was Stewart’s “pure fantasy” novel, in contrast to the mixed urban fantasy with science fictional elements type of story that characterizes the majority of his works. I have to admit that the first time I tried to read this book I didn’t like it. I still think that Stewart wasn’t fully successful in realizing what he was attempting, but Clouds End still has some of Stewart’s best writing and character development, and a marvelous vision of a magical world.
Stewart has said that he wanted to write an epic fantasy in the mould of Tolkien, but from his own agnostic perspective as opposed to the religiously infused one of Tolkien. The world he creates is truly magical. We start out on the island of Clouds End, a place that exists on the very edge of the magical otherworld known as the Mist. The Mist is the place from which mankind draws their myths and stories, both good and evil, and seems to interact with the human psyche in some sort of symbiotic way, bringing to life the unconscious dreams of those on its periphery. In this sense it is something like Ryhope Wood as seen in Robert Holdstock‘s classic Mythago Wood, though it seems to be creating the world around it in a much more concrete fashion even as it participates in the generation of myths and heroes; for the Mist produces gods and powers, giving physical substance to the folk heroes and villains of mankind. It also changes any humans who enter its depths, making them into Haunts, something akin to the preternatural fae of our more traditional mythologies. We see examples of the former in the world-changing figures of the Gull Warrior and Sere, one apparently a folk hero of the island dwellers, the other a trickster god of fire and chaos. The latter comes directly into the story in the form of Jo, a human who had entered the Mist and became a shapeshifter who now longs to regain a human soul.
The main characters are a group of four young friends, all inhabitants of Clouds End, who are drawn into a quest when one of their number, Brook, is “twinned” by Jo and is now mystically bound to her. They decide to follow Jo in her quest to the mainland and become embroiled in a war undertaken by the Emperor of a far land under the malign influence of the fire-god Sere. As usual with Stewart, each of these characters are fully realized and interesting people, from the uncertain and apprehensive Brook and solid and dependable Rope to the adventure seeking and rash Shale and the mercurial and lovelorn Foam. As well, true to form, Stewart’s depiction of magic is spot-on. Magic is seen as a numinous and capricious force that touches human lives in unexpected and usually dangerous ways. This is not simply science by another name; it is the unknown and the unknowable taking part in our everyday lives, our dreams and nightmares come to life.
The story is full of exceptional scenes and characters and I found it a joy to read simply for the sake of Stewart’s prose, but I have to admit that I don’t think it ultimately worked as an example of epic fantasy. The supposed reason for the overall quest, the war being waged by the empire of the forest dwellers against the islanders, seems to peter out without really requiring any intervention on the part of the main characters. It is actually their individual stories that hold more interest, and follow much more reasonable arcs, than the supposed meta-plot of the novel and I think Stewart would have been better served to have simply told their stories without attempting to force them into the context of an “epic fantasy quest.” Still, I think Stewart has written a worthy book in Clouds End and it is exceptional both for its similarities to his other work and, perhaps moreso, because of its differences.
FanLit thanks Terry Lago for contributing this guest review.