Cloud Cuckoo Land: Transcends the sum of its parts

Reposting to include Ray’s new review.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

What do a pair of young kids on the opposite sides of the fall of Constantinople, the protagonist of an ancient Greek tale, an eco-terrorist, a Korean war vet and former prisoner-of-war, and a young girl on a generation ship have in common? Well, besides all being major characters in Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021). To find out what else ties them all together, you’ll have to read the book, which I do recommend despite some issues.

I’m going to leave the plot summary such as it is to the introduction, as part of the pleasure of Cloud Cuckoo Land is sorting through the pieces and seeing how they all fit together. Structurally, as you might guess, the novel’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle (no surprise that puzzles get mentioned), moving not only amongst multiple third-person POVs, but also back and forth in time, not only between those POVs, which span centuries, but also within them as well. Before you panic, that all sounds much more confusing than it actually is, as Doerr shows himself a deft hand at moving seamlessly amongst plot threads and chronologies. Despite the number of characters and the multiple time shifts, I was never confused as to when I was or who I was with.

Another feature that might worry some is the novel’s 600+ pages. But here again, the number is more daunting than the reality. As with the character and time shifts, the pages pass smoothly and effortlessly. I happily read it in a long languid afternoon’s worth of reading and had anyone asked me its length when I finished, I would have guessed between 400-500 pages. In fact, it felt far shorter than the 430-page book I’d just finished the day before.

Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr

Characterization is a bit mixed, with Anna, a young girl trapped in besieged Constantinople, and Zeno, the Korean vet (we do see more of his life than the war), coming most fully alive and most sharply drawn. Omeir, Anna’s counterpart who finds himself drafted into the war on the other side, is nearly as well-realized, particularly in his relationship with the two oxen he is in charge of (as further evidence of Doerr’s skill, the oxen themselves become moving characters). The other two major characters — Konstance, the young girl on the generation ship and Seymour, a young boy on the spectrum — aren’t quite as strong. Seymour has some beautiful moments, but at times can feel more like a collection of traits than a full-blooded character, and Konstance, too, feels less than wholly fleshed out and more a plot-driver than a completely round character.

As for the various story threads, again I’m going to avoid details, but I will say that a few were somewhat predictable as to their ending, and one honestly even a bit cliché, though these issues were more than balanced by the stronger threads. Anna, Omeir, and Zeno’s were my favorites, while Seymour and Konstance’s were less successful for me, both better at the start than as they developed.

More than the individual threads though, the strength of the book lies in how they are interwoven, with Cloud Cuckoo Land a true “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” novel. Amongst a number of themes including our impact on the planet, our relationship with those we share the Earth with, the cruelty of humans on an individual and a societal scale, the hunger to find one’s place in the world, the core through-line is that ancient Greek text (the author is real, the text is fictional), making Cloud Cuckoo Land (among many other things) a book about books, a story about the enduring power of story. And the power of librarians (a moment’s pause for us all to recollect a favorite librarian or two who helped our childhood selves meet the books we needed at the time).

While the Greek text appears in each story, Doerr also peppers each POV thread with a host of echoes involving parallel themes, images, language, and more, creating a fantastic tapestry. Doerr does such an excellent job with these echoes in fact that I actually was disappointed when he made the connections more directly overt. It was akin to enjoying a room lit by the dancing flames of a fire and then someone turning on an overhead light with a half-dozen 1200 lumen LED bulbs in it.

Still, Cloud Cuckoo Land remains an affecting book. In its separate elements — prose, setting, characterization, plotting — it ranges from weak (some plot and character aspects) to solid (prose) to quite good (other plot and character facets, parallel imagery and language and theme), but, and I can’t detail for you exactly why, when the individual parts fall out of focus and one is just carried along by the book to its touching end, it transcends its conglomerate of parts and becomes an immersive, moving whole.Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

~Bill Capossere


Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTrying to introduce Anthony Doerr‘s Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021) presents a bit of a conundrum. The book is, among other things, a puzzle. Doerr himself has described the reading process as holding up seemingly disparate pieces of story and, over many hundreds of pages, fitting them together. But can five different characters set in the past, the present and the future come together to weave a coherent whole? 

The story opens with Konstance, a young girl on the interstellar ship Argos in the future, surrounded by scraps of paper. Then come the rest: thirteen-year-old Anna, working with her sister Anna within the walls of 15th century Constantinople, embroidering the robes of priests; Omeir, a young boy outside the walls, conscripted into the army besieging Constantinople; Zeno, in a library in 2020, rehearsing a play with a group of school children; and, finally, Seymour, a teenager plagued by fears for the environment, who walks into that library with a bomb.

These separate stories may seem like they have nothing in common and, for the first third of the story, it certainly feels that way. Whilst tracing the different characters across time and space is a pleasure in itself (particularly given Doerr’s masterful storytelling), it is difficult to see how everything is going to be woven together – though that, perhaps, is the joy of this story. But over time, the stories intersect and even (across centuries) affect one another. Pivotal in this is an ancient text: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes.

As the pieces begin to fit together, the book becomes more and more enjoyable. It begins to feel like a composite whole and, as the stories dissect, the pace ramps up. Given the scope and complexity of the story, this is no small feat: Doerr’s climax reads like a thriller, despite spanning hundreds of years (and the galaxy!).

Doerr’s skill is not limited to plot. He paints his characters masterfully, particularly Seymour, who, as a terrorist (!), should not by any means be as sympathetically portrayed as he is, yet he is perhaps the most compelling and endearing character. Doerr jumps backwards and forwards across lifetimes, so that we trace the whole of Zeno’s life, from childhood to his time in the Korean war, all the way into his eighties. As is perhaps inevitable, readers will have favourite characters: I found myself racing to reach Seymour’s and and Zeno’s sections, whilst Omeir I felt less compelled by, but Doerr’s storytelling is such that this won’t necessarily matter: the tale as a whole is enough to keep readers hooked.

And of course there is the writing. Doerr has said that he would spend whole days thinking about particular sentences. The prose is exquisitely formed; each word feels specifically chosen to fit its purpose. The writing is so evocative and self-assured that readers will be willing enough to go on whatever ride he plans to take them on.

After All The Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize, Doerr set himself a hard act to follow, but Cloud Cuckoo Land will not disappoint. From the familiar plot of a war-besieged town, to compelling characters that will have you rooting for them until the end, the story is sure to delight. Get through that first third of uncertainty: the pay-off is worth it.

~Ray McKenzie

Published in September 2021. From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All the Light We Cannot See, perhaps the most bestselling and beloved literary fiction of our time, comes the highly anticipated Cloud Cuckoo Land. Set in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, in a small town in present-day Idaho, and on an interstellar ship decades from now, Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous third novel is a triumph of imagination and compassion, a soaring story about children on the cusp of adulthood in worlds in peril, who find resilience, hope—and a book. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, Doerr has created a magnificent tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness—with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us, and with those who will be here after we’re gone. Thirteen-year-old Anna, an orphan, lives inside the formidable walls of Constantinople in a house of women who make their living embroidering the robes of priests. Restless, insatiably curious, Anna learns to read, and in this ancient city, famous for its libraries, she finds a book, the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. This she reads to her ailing sister as the walls of the only place she has known are bombarded in the great siege of Constantinople. Outside the walls is Omeir, a village boy, miles from home, conscripted with his beloved oxen into the invading army. His path and Anna’s will cross. Five hundred years later, in a library in Idaho, octogenarian Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war, rehearses five children in a play adaptation of Aethon’s story, preserved against all odds through centuries. Tucked among the library shelves is a bomb, planted by a troubled, idealistic teenager, Seymour. This is another siege. And in a not-so-distant future, on the interstellar ship Argos, Konstance is alone in a vault, copying on scraps of sacking the story of Aethon, told to her by her father. She has never set foot on our planet. Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, Zeno, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of gravest danger. Their lives are gloriously intertwined. Doerr’s dazzling imagination transports us to worlds so dramatic and immersive that we forget, for a time, our own. Dedicated to “the librarians then, now, and in the years to come,” Cloud Cuckoo Land is a beautiful and redemptive novel about stewardship—of the book, of the Earth, of the human heart.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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One comment

  1. Sounds like “Cloud Atlas” meets “Amber and Clay.”

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