The Cloud Roads is the first installment of Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura series, a vivid and imaginative secondary world fantasy populated by a wealth of strange and fascinating creatures. Primary attention is given to the Raksura, a species of reptilian shapeshifters with a curious insectile social structure. This book is driven by worldbuilding, and as such, it must introduce a point-of-view that can ease the reader into the rich vitality of the setting, one piece at a time. Moon’s backstory as it is given is far from original, but as a vagabond traveler orphaned at a young age, he serves the book’s needs perfectly.
A well-rounded review requires revealing to the reader some things that the protagonist himself is initially ignorant of. Moon begins the story as a solitary being, camouflaged among strangers and unable to answer even the simplest questions about what he is or where he came from. The only others of his kind who he knew are long-dead. He does know a few things about himself, some of which he reveals to the readers, and others which he holds back. But the first turn of the plot is stated in the very beginning of chapter one, before doubling back to expose the transition in full.
An unexpected meeting with another member of his kind, the first he’s seen since losing his nuclear family, sets the wheels of the plot in motion. We are introduced to Stone, a Raksura elder who is determined to socialize Moon into his home colony. He is the first to expose Moon to the Raksura’s complex social structure, built on a foundation of biologically determined castes, and clearly modeled after colony insects, bees or ants. Like insects, they have winged and unwinged subtypes, as well as having entire segments of their society that are exclusively sterile. Colony culture, based on these parameters, is a morass of intrigue and power-play.
Naturally, in his role as the story’s mentor, Stone holds back certain critical facts. Between the complexity of cultural expectations, Stone’s lies, and his own ignorance, Moon lands himself in an unenviable position of commodity. Rather, he finds himself serving the role of a spirited princess, except for the insignificant happenstance of using male pronouns.
A spirited princess can appear in various roles, although she is most often a protagonist. Although born as royalty, she is notable for being tomboyish, combative, and just all-around rebellious. This sets her apart from other princesses, usually marking her for a more heroic role. In the past I’ve read one too many of these tales, and came out convinced that I could never stand to see another, on pain of terminal boredom. Swapping the gender of the character, from female to male, does surprisingly much to counter that. Then there’s also the matter of him being a shapeshifting dragon.
Nonetheless, that is undoubtedly what Moon is. As a Raksura drone, here called a “consort”, he walks a thin line between asset and liability. On the one hand, consorts are a commodity and the court he happened to walk into happens to need one very badly. On the other hand, he’s socially-maladjusted, distrustful, and aggressive, not at all prone to proper gentlemanlike consort behavior. Then there is the matter of his orphan status and unknown bloodline.
Some of the indignities Moon is subject to ring very familiar. His ignorance of custom leaves him vulnerable. The revelation of his status puts him under uncomfortable scrutiny. Often manipulated and lied to, his future is taken out of his hands when he is discussed, both to his face and behind his back, by both allies and enemies, until eventually he irritably asks whether his opinion of his own future is at all relevant. Court intrigues make him a status symbol and a tool for power, in addition to the very material benefits of a fertile male in a community devastated by war and disease.
When it comes to Moon’s role as a sexual commodity, I could go on and on about it and still not cover anything. That’s not even mentioning the sequels, where he is explicitly contrasted with other consorts, just as any piece of arm-candy must be. Fortunately Moon is a feisty consort, able to defend his honor from handsy foreign queens, and terrify the delicate flowers of other courts with his war stories and battle scars.
There is a lot about these books that’s delightful to me, and there are reasons why I tore through the first three installments in two weeks. I feel like I have waited forever for a book that doesn’t use the odd, alien fantastical creatures as a backdrop for the stories of human protagonists. Reading a book about a species with multiple sexes is always a treat. The fantasy and the wonder of the setting won me over, and yet the relationships are beautifully empathic and human, and the supporting characters are charming.
Although there is a great deal more that I could say, I feel like these things sufficiently recommend the books, to those who think they might be interested. The prose is fluent and readable. The plots are well-paced. Characters’ behaviors and emotions feel authentic, even when they express those emotions through flicking their dorsal spines or lashing their tails. The setting is a fantasy kitchen sink, colorfully described and filled with a sense of wonder. If you’re looking for a book with an unusually inhuman protagonist, that is what I, also, was looking for. I found The Cloud Roads satisfied that need marvelously.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.