The Cloud Roads: Rich and inventive world-building

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMartha Wells The Cloud RoadsThe Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

FORMAT/INFO: The Cloud Roads is 288 pages long divided over 20 numbered chapters. It also includes two Appendixes, one about the Raksura and one about the Fell. Narration is in the third-person, exclusively via the protagonist Moon. The Cloud Roads is self-contained, but a sequel titled The Serpent Sea will be published in 2012. March 2011 marks the Trade Paperback publication of The Cloud Roads via Night Shade. The eye-catching cover art is provided by Matthew Stewart.

ANALYSIS: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells is a novel that immediately grabbed my attention because of the cover artwork, but the real reward is the book itself with its rich and inventive world-building, seasoned writing, and entertaining story.

World-building is by far the novel’s most striking attribute. Teeming with exotic wildlife (vargit, draughtbeasts, lopers, cloud-walkers), plants (grenilvine, greenroot, three-leafed purple bow) and intelligent species (Cordans, Sericans, the golden-skinned, white-haired Islanders; Dwei), not to mention sky-islands, wind-ships and a rotating city, the Three Worlds is a fascinating place to explore. Vividly brought to life by Martha Wells’ descriptive prose and vibrant creativity, the highlights of this imaginative fantasy milieu are the Raksura and the Fell.

Raksura are shape-shifters who can shift between a groundling form and a scaly, long-tailed form with “retractable claws” and “manes of flexible spines and soft frills,” and are part of an interesting society in which roles (teachers, hunters, soldiers, mentors, warriors, consorts, queens) are determined by breed (flightless Arbora, winged Aeriat) and bloodlines. The Fell are a shape-shifting race somewhat similar to the Raksura in appearance and their different classes (male rulers, female progenitors, kethel, dakti), except they are considerably more beastly and like to “prey on other intelligent species,” thus making the Fell hated and feared throughout the Three Worlds. Appendixes on the two species are provided at the back of the book, which are helpful because the entire novel is basically centered around the conflict between the Raksura and the Fell.

Plot-wise, the story in The Cloud Roads is fairly straightforward and predictable with a number of familiar plot devices and fantasy tropes utilized throughout the book — the traitor whose identity is hidden by misdirection, the protagonist’s forgotten past come back to haunt him, the orphan who discovers his “extraordinary lineage”, et cetera. Furthermore, the themes explored during the story are common ones, which include topics like the lonely outsider trying to fit in, acceptance, social status, love and self-preservation. Yet, for all of its familiarity and predictability, The Cloud Roads is a well-told novel thanks to crisp pacing, exciting action — specifically the battles between the Raksura and the Fell — and deft storytelling.

Unfortunately, The Cloud Roads does have a few flaws, starting with the novel’s characterization. While Moon — the solitary Raksuran with no clan — is likable and sympathetic as the main protagonist, Martha Wells doesn’t do a very convincing job explaining or expressing the reasons and motivations behind Moon’s thoughts and actions: why Moon is so reluctant to join the Indigo Cloud Court when it’s all he’s searched for his whole life, or what changed his mind about joining the Raksuran clan, or what caused him to fall in love, and so on. From a general sense, I can understand why these things happened because of my familiarity with this kind of story and themes, but Moon’s thoughts and actions were unconvincing when seen from his perspective.

To make matters worse, the supporting cast (Stone, Chime, Flower, Jade, Pearl, etc.) is largely one-dimensional with little to differentiate one character from another apart from their different classes — Stone is a consort, Chime is a warrior, Flower is a mentor and both Jade & Pearl are queens. However, I felt the Fell made interesting villains, partly because of their relationship to the Raksura, and partly because their actions had a purpose behind them that was not completely evil and unsympathetic. At the same time, other elements that did not work so well in the novel included dialogue that felt unnatural and out-of-place at times, and weak attempts at humor.

CONCLUSION: I’ll be honest. I had never heard of Martha Wells before and actually thought The Cloud Roads was her debut novel. So it was a little surprising to learn that Martha Wells was actually the author of several novels and short stories, with her first published fiction dating back all the way to 1995. The real surprise though is how I could have overlooked the author in the first place. If The Cloud Roads is any indication, then Martha Wells is a very talented and creative writer, someone I should have been reading all of these years. It’s a mistake I plan on correcting as soon as possible. In the meantime, I urge anyone who has never read or heard of Martha Wells before to give The Cloud Roads a look. Even with its issues regarding characterization, dialogue and humor, The Cloud Roads is a terrific fantasy novel that stands out due to imaginative world-building, accomplished writing and engaging storytelling. For everyone else, The Cloud Roads is a proud example of what the genre is capable of producing.

~Robert Thompson


Martha Wells The Cloud RoadsThe slow and steady building of a plot in this first book in a trilogy is skillfully done. The worldbuilding seems less complex than it needs to be to support all the alien species and the apparent long back story to this novel, but perhaps that will come in later books in this trilogy.

~Terry Weyna


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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit’s staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn’t do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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