Monday, 23 July 2018

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

This is a hard book to write a review about, because it falls into the vast middle territory of books that I enjoyed perfectly well while I was reading them, while having absolutely no urge to seek out further books in the series. In other words, it was fine, even good, but it wasn't great. There wasn't anything I latched on to and loved, there wasn't anything that irritated me so much it became a negative reading experience. It was just...fine.

So what was it, and what wasn't it, and why does it sit in this strange middle territory that I find it very, very hard to write reviews about?  It's fantasy, it's a fantasy world that is trying some new things, which I appreciate, but the ways in which it's trying them don't feel that innovative, I guess. Which is a weird thing to say, because it's easy to point to the background and the story and say that this is new. But if we're going with Roger Ebert and the "it's not what it's about, it's how it is about it," that's where this feels competent but not compelling.

That being said, we're in a fantasy land with many different races of people. The groundlings seem almost human, but not really - they frequently have very different physiological features, and that seems to not be a source of great friction, except in one case. The one case is a big one, though. There are a race of vaguely reptilian flyers known as the Fell, and you know they're evil because they carry a stench wherever they go, and kill almost indiscriminately, although they do tend to have intelligence.

Unfortunately for the main character, Moon, there are another race that are not widely known, but are physically similar to the Fell except for smell - reptilian, flyers, can shapeshift. He is one of these, having been stolen away or rescued, it's unclear, as a child. His family died early, and he's been masquerading as a "groundling," (his non-winged, non-reptilian form), repeatedly. And it sounds like, in multiple cases including the one we see, those experiments end up with people discovering he can shapechange and presuming he is a Fell, and try to kill him.

When he escapes, he is taken under the wing (literally, pretty much) of one of his actual people, who turn out to be the Raksura, an older consort travelling between Raksura kingdoms. Moon is incredibly suspicious of them, even more suspicious than it seems that he's been of the groups of groundlings he's been living with. Now, given one of those groups just tried to kill him, I get some additional wariness, but given that he's repeatedly sought out companionship despite the sudden but inevitable betrayal, the length of time it takes him to entertain the idea of staying with the Raksura never quite felt right. I get suspicion. I don't get total rejection, particularly when he's shown himself to be starved for connection.

At any rate, this is where this doesn't feel innovative. It's a well-constructed story of an outsider trying to find a place in a monarchical society, and even though thrown in is the idea that the monarch may have been compromised by outside forces, there's little that feels new. Which is not to say it's bad - it's actually quite good. It's just that there wasn't anything I was pleasantly surprised by. It pretty much went exactly the way I'd expect a fantasy book of this sort to go, just with reptilian flyers.

So, yes. It's very competent. It's not bad. I don't feel the need to pick up the next one, but if it crossed one of my book lists, I wouldn't turn away from it either.

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