After a spat of straight contemporary reads this year, I finally started looking at my TBR for a nice fantasy and my eye landed on The Cloud Roads, a book I picked up at LunaCon. This book has been on my radar after a joint review at The Book Smugglers, but Kristen putting it on her favorites list sealed it. I think Kristen has great taste in fantasy, and have resolved to listen to her when she recommends something.
The Premise: Moon is a orphan who doesn't know exactly what he is. The sole survivor of the massacre of his mother and young siblings, Moon has wandered among the groundlings, blending in with his own earth-bound form, for much of his life. When no one is looking, he shape-shifts into a scaled, winged creature with claws, frills around his head, and a long tail. Unfortunately, once shifted, he has more than a passing similarity to the Fell, a reviled, sociopathic race with no purpose than to conquering and decimating cities, leaching all resources, and moving on to restart the cycle elsewhere. Moon is not a Fell, but he looks like one, and if his secret form is discovered, the consequences could be dire. And then Moon meets another shape-shifter just like him, who wants to take Moon back to his colony. Moon accepts the offer, if only to find out more about his race, but this stranger has more than altruistic motives for bringing Moon to the others. Moon doesn't know just how crucial he is to the survival of this colony, nor is it certain he would he have come if he'd known of its recent upheavals.
My Thoughts: The lost orphan making his way in the world. It's a common trope in the fantasy genre, but ever since I read The Belgariad I've loved it. There's something about the search for identity and the possibilities within the Fantasy landscape that I adore. Add this to another trope I have a thing for, which is discovering new cultures through a character's eyes, and you've got me eagerly absorbing the story of Moon finding his people.
The Cloud Roads establishes Moon's isolated and temporary lifestyle early on. Typically Moon spends his day hunting alone, then comes home to the hut and the two women he shares it with (assigned to him by the Cordan camp). Sometimes, he sneaks out of the camp at night and assumes his other form. Always, this is in secret:
"Moon had been very young when his mother and siblings had been killed, and she had never told him where they had come from. For a long time he had searched sky-islands looking for some trace of his own people. The islands flew; it stood to reason that the inhabitants might be shifters who could fly. But he had never found anything, and now he just explored because it gave him something to do.
When Moon had first joined the Cordans, he hadn't thought of staying this long. He had lived with other people he had liked--most recently the Jandin, who had lived in cliff caves above a waterfall, and the Hassi, with their wooden city high in the air atop a thick mat of link-trees--but something always happened. The Fell came or someone got suspicious of him and he had to move on."
The opening sentence of The Cloud Roads warns us that things are to change for Moon ("Moon had been thrown out of a lot of groundling settlements and camps, but he hadn't expected it from the Cordans."), and it soon does. Things happen very quickly, and suddenly Moon is on a journey with Stone, an older shapeshifter. Stone is a Raksura, and so is Moon. Stone wants Moon to come to his colony, Indigo Cloud Court, and Moon agrees, both because Moon has no where else to go, and because he has a burning desire to learn what he is. At the colony, Moon meets the Raksura, a race of shapeshifters with different attributes -- some that can shift to winged shape (the Aeriat class) which are the warriors and royals, and others that only have a ground form (the Arbora) which are hunters, mentors, soldiers and teachers. It's a hive-type society where everyone has their role and place in the overall hierarchy, and the queens are its rulers. Moon is an awkward outsider at first, but he was born a consort, with all the privileges and expectations that that brings. He just has to figure out how to be one. As a solitary, he's grown up less sheltered and pampered than he normally would be.
There is enough from Stone's not-being-quite-forthcoming to make a guess where the story would go, but I was never exactly right. Just when I thought I knew what would happen, something else would. The Cloud Roads had a very dynamic plot -- new problems were always being thrown into the mix and Moon and the other Raksura spend a lot of time having to react to the latest fire, but at the same time, this was done quite smoothly. I never felt like anything was forced, and Moon's adjustment to everything had just as much page-time as the threats to Indigo Cloud Court. There is plenty of time for Moon to make both friends and enemies among the Raksura and to begin to understand their politics and culture. Meanwhile, there are also threats outside the colony that need to be dealt with. The outside enemies are your typical shadowy bad guys (although there were suggestions of their viewpoints, they weren't delved into), but I was okay with this because Moon's fledgling relationship with the other Raksura felt like the primary focus.
There are also several races in The Cloud Roads world. None are human, although a couple are human-like. There are lizard-like people, snail-like people, tusked people, tentacle-faced people, and opalescent people. There's the feeling that there are many more. This is a big world and Moon and the Raksura don't know all that is in it. When Moon and others venture out, they are journeys to places they haven't been to before, so there's always an element of wonder and discovery. And it's quite lovely: the fantastic vistas and architectural marvels captures the romantic notions of fantasy. I particularly liked how the artifacts of past civilizations dotting the landscape added a sense of lost history to the world building.
Overall: A hive-like society, an orphan in search of his people, and a world populated by strange races, none of them human. The Cloud Roads is recognizable fantasy, but with a fresh spin. I really enjoyed the mix of comfort and creativity as well as the imaginative world building, but I was won over by Moon's personal struggles. I felt empathy for his initial loneliness and culture shock, and I wanted to see him thrive in his new place. I recommend this for traditional fantasy fans who like feel-good adventure and maybe a drop of romance.
I already started reading the sequel, The Serpent Sea, and will probably also buy the third book of this trilogy, The Siren Depths, when it comes out in December this year.