This is not really a book review - The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
(Please be warned: this review contains some spoilers, though I tried to keep them as general as possible.)
That's what happened to me, reading Martha Wells's "The Cloud Roads" (the first in her Raksura series. Spoiler: The later books are also really good.) And happily, the subsequent pages lived up to that promise.
If someone were to ask me for a Christmas list of every thing I would want in a fantasy book so that they could write one specifically for me, I do not think they could write a book series more to my taste than this one.
This book suits my taste more than stories I've written myself. That is how much I love this book.
I love this book/series so much that I can't even do a real review of it! For one, there would be way too many exclamation points. And I'm trying to wean myself off of those.
However, if you are curious, here are some things that I really love about this book/series:
- There are no humans. This would often be a negative for me, as I find it helpful to emotionally invest myself in a setting that has humans. Even if my favorite characters aren't the humans, I find it to be a helpful touchstone. In this series there are no humans though: there are groundlings, which are human-like, but depending on the race, may have scales or tusks or even tentacles.
In this book, I didn't miss humans at all. The groundling groups and settlements all have nice little touches that differentiate them even if they only get a single page mention. The main characters (almost all of whom are Raksura) will never be mistaken for human but are developed and interesting enough that I don't need their humanity (or contrast with humanity) to be invested.
- The Raksura. The Raksura, to me, are kind of like what you might get if the dragons of Pern ditched the annoying humans, created their own societies, and evolved into more humanoid forms. While keeping scales and wings (some of them anyway), and queen-led stratification. (No lisping names, thank goodness.)
What I particularly like about the Raksura is that while there are two types, wingless and winged. It doesn't feel as though either are second class citizens even though they have different societal roles. There is one major character who was born a wingless mentor (kind of like a shaman or healer) and mysteriously changed into a winged warrior, who is quite unhappy with the change. There are quite a few major wingless characters and they have clear political clout and importance within their Courts.
I also like how the Raksura culture is vivid, well-defined and clearly alien in a number of ways. They are possibly the most believable and detailed alien culture I have read since the atevi in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series.
- Reversed Gender Roles. I've always liked how Martha Wells reverses or subverts traditional narrative gender roles in many of her books. I think I went into this in my review of Element of Fire some years back. In this case, the non-stereotypical gender roles are culturally/biologically driven. The winged Raksura, or Aeriat, are born as warriors (sterile, male or female), Queens (fertile females) and Consorts (fertile males). The Queens lead the courts, while the Consorts are generally pampered, sheltered and often treated as status symbols for the Queens. (The Arbora appear to be more egalitarian, and are all fertile.) The Consorts role reminds me a little of the role of aristocratic women in Heian Japan, though that is a vastly oversimplified comparison. The Queens also tend to be more sexually aggressive.
What I enjoy most though is that even with the reversed narrative gender roles, the female characters read like women and the male characters read like men. The Queens, Jade and Pearl, are domineering and aggressive, but they are domineering and aggressive women. There isn't anything macho about them. Likewise, former or current consorts like Stone or Umber, are not remotely effeminate.
Actually, I would probably describe Stone (who is a line-grandfather, a very old Consort who has outlived his Queen, and acts as a mentor to the lead character) as: Jack O'Neill from Stargate SG-1 as a dowager empress.
Which is a mental image that you possibly can't get rid of. You're welcome.
- The story skips ahead of the boring bits. Everyone's read the standard "orphan goes on a quest and discovers he's actually a prince" type story. But I always thought that the more interesting part was how said orphan adjusts to being a prince. How does the orphan actually DO as the prince? What about culture shock? How does he handle everyone's expectations when he doesn't have the education or upbringing? What about his own learned responses and values?
In this case, the lead character, Moon, discovers he is Raksura Consort and is brought to a Court in chapter 2. Which means that the entire story is Moon learning about Raksura, trying to figure out what the hell he's supposed to do, learning to trust and trying to be accepted. (Actually, considering the role Consorts play in Raksuran society, it's more like an orphan discovering he is a princess...which is perhaps a different kettle of fish altogether.) Meanwhile, the Court learns to adapt to him.
- Moon. Moon is my favorite kind of lead character. He's a twitchy, surly bastard who, after about forty years of trying to hide in groundling society, getting found out, getting kicked out, trying to live alone, getting lonely, and starting the cycle all over again, has more than a few issues about the whole thing. Now that he knows what he is, he really wants to find a home with the Raksura. But it's not easy to adjust. His particular upbringing is not terribly compatible with the whole coddled, sheltered Consort archetype, either.
This is not, however, a case of a manly man who overthrows an Amazonian society through the might of his...um...machismo. Moon is not a Queen. He might, however, become a very good Consort. In his own way.
- The Queens have no human(ish) form. It is weird that this appeals to me, but it does. Both Aeriat and Arbora Raksura have two forms. The first being the kind of draconic (or maybe Disney Gargoyle-like), and the second being a human(ish) form. The Queens have two forms as well, but rather than having a human-ish form, their first form is Aeriat and the second is Arbora. Both have spines and scales and such. So it's not a matter of inhuman monster becomes beautiful human girl. In both forms, the Queens are very clearly, obviously Raksura. This means that Moon's Queen is pretty much always a bit bigger/stronger than Moon. I enjoy couples where the girl is bigger/physically stronger, so this appeals to me. (For his part, Moon seems to enjoy it as well.)
- Casual bisexuality and not-quite monogamy. The only thing I hadn't really enjoyed about Element of Fire was that the only real instance of homosexuality (that I recall anyway, it's been a while since I read it) was between the King and his corrupt advisor. That might have been only implied, but I can't recall. I gave Ms. Wells the benefit of the doubt that it wasn't an intentional bisexuality/homosexuality = evil thing. And I think I was right to do so, because bisexuality seems to be a normal, unremarkable aspect of Raksuran society. It is outright stated that Queens and Consorts have warrior and Arbora lovers, gender nonspecific. And late in the series, Moon even has a regular, if casual, male partner. (His Queen does not appear to mind.)
((Other books by Ms. Wells also have homosexual and bisexual characters as well, but this is not a post about those books.))
-- There are not quite enough explosions for my taste. But I can accept that.
So yes. This isn't a review. It's a long rambling list of why I love these books. If your tastes are at all similar to mine, I suspect you might love these books too. If not, that's okay. But we might have to argue for a while. (at least until you distract me with something shiny.)