A lot of people tend to believe that there is a very large distinction between fantasy and science fiction: fantasy is all about magic and elves and dwarves; science fiction is about space ships and lasers and aliens. Lately, however, this has not held true, with the two genres overlapping in ways that can make some novels difficult to classify neatly into either genre. Some fantasy contains sci-fi elements, while some novels that appear to be sci-fi on the surface read a lot more like fantasy. This falls completely in line with Clarke’s (as in Arthur C. Clarke, renowned sci-fi writer) Third Law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The fine line between magic and technology is something that many contemporary writers of both genres have played with, each in their own way, producing works that do not slot neatly into one genre or the other.
This meeting of genres is, of course, not a problem in the least, since the potential of any story has always fallen, not on the conventions of the genre, but upon the writer doing the writing, and their skill in creating a world and characters and telling a story. And Martha Wells, author of The Cloud Roads, the first book in the Books of the Raksura series, certainly knows what she’s doing.
The Cloud Roads, and the rest of the books in the series, tend to be classified as science fiction, but this first novel reads like fantasy, and I suspect that the other books will, too. This is, of course, not a problem, as The Cloud Roads has turned out to be quite an enjoyable read – albeit without the same depth I rather hoped it would have, or the same level of memorability.
The story takes place in a world known as the Three Worlds, inhabited by a diverse set of intelligent races and creatures, but none of which the reader would recognize as human. For instance, the main character, Moon, has scales instead of skin, and the people he’s living with, the Cordans, have multicolored scales as well, instead of skin. But Moon is different: he’s not quite Cordan, not really, because he can shape-shift into a creature with black scales, a tail, and wings. Unfortunately, this makes him look a lot like another group of creatures called the Fell, which are the enemies of many other races because the Fell prey upon everything else. When he’s betrayed by one of the Cordans, he is rescued from certain death by another creature like him, who calls himself Stone. Stone says he is from a race called the Raksura, and that Moon is like him. This sets Moon on a journey of self-discovery – one that involves saving not just himself, but others, as well.
One of the most notable things about this novel is the world-building. Wells does not get into in a very in-depth manner, but allows the reader to learn about the Three Worlds as we see it through Moon’s eyes. This is something I can appreciate, as I am one of those readers who enjoys having to work a little to learn about a world, and while learning about the Three Worlds in The Cloud Roads was not as challenging as learning about the world of Umayma in Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha books, I still appreciate the fact that I did have to work a little to comprehend the world.
And it is an intriguing world, indeed: wild and beautiful, with pockets of civilization in the form of tribes and racial groups that move across the Three Worlds in their own way: groundlings (races that can’t fly) on foot, and other races that can fly on wings. There are hints of a super-advanced civilization whose existence once spread across the entirety of the Three Worlds, but nothing is left of this civilization other than scattered ruins and the occasional relic. This ancient civilization, however, only lingers in the backdrop, and while it did pique my interest, Wells does not get into it in this novel – something I hope changes in the other two novels that come after this one.
As for Moon, I pretty much liked him almost from the get-go. He’s wary of everything, and very careful – a result of a major, traumatizing event in his past that continues to haunt and hound him into the present of the novel. While the circumstances that created his personality are far from pretty, and I certainly would not wish them on anyone, I tend to like the kind of cautious, wary character that Moon is, since they tend to notice if things are wrong – or over-think things, too, which can be funny and frustrating in the best of ways. Both of these things happen with Moon, which really makes him such a delight to read.
However, the same cannot be quite said about the other characters. I suppose it’s because of the sheer volume of them, but while I enjoyed reading about them while I was reading the book, now that I’ve put it down, I find that I don’t quite seem to care about them as much. I came to care about the clutch that Moon rescued at the end of the novel, but beyond them, Stone, Flower, Jade, Chime, Pearl, Niran and Selis, everyone else seemed a little lackluster and faded into the background. I suppose this is because all the other characters are technically minor and meant to be forgotten after a while, but I wonder why it was necessary to name all of them when they were, in the end, meant to fade in the background. I suppose they will make a comeback at another point in the series, but I am not so sure of that.
As for the plot, it was pretty standard fare, and was fun while I was reading it, but on hindsight, feels rather simplistic. There was a sense of true, genuine threat to Moon’s life towards the end of the novel, and there was some excitement to be had learning about the truth of the Fell’s plans, but apart from that, it was not as exciting or as deep as I hoped it would be, considering all the praise this story has gotten from others. I was hoping for something truly absorbing, something I could turn over in my head a while, but I did not quite get that in this novel.
Overall, The Cloud Roads is a great introduction to the characters and world of the Books of the Raksura – and that might be all it is: an introduction. While the main characters are intriguing enough and memorable enough to stick with the reader, a great many others are forgettable, and as for the plot, it’s not quite as deep or as absorbing as I was hoping it would be, which is unfortunate due to the richness of the world Wells has created for her series. I suppose everything will fall into place in the later books, with a deeper, richer, more expansive plot and better character development, but that remains to be seen.