Most fantasy novels that I’ve read work, generally, in the context of an existing society of our world. Tolkien took his cues from Nordic mythology and the Eddas. C.S. Lewis took a mixture of elements from various Mediterranean cultures and his own Christian views. Japanese period fantasy (as seen in anime, manga, live-action cinema, and books like the Kouga Ninja Scrolls) take cues from stories about youkai and oni, along with legends about the history of the Japanese Imperial family and the deities from which they draw lineage.
So, when reading The Cloud Roads, I was rather surprised to see very few connections to any real existing human cultures. However, the book also managed to execute on this without leaving me completely lost.
Well, I should say I was cheating slightly by specifying “human” cultures. The narrative focuses not on any real human society, as near as I can tell, Humans are Sirs-Not-Appearing-In-This-World. There are humanoid-ish races, but the focus is instead on a race called the Raksura. The Raksura are a race of shape-changers, who, depending on whether they’re an “Aeriat” or an “Arbora”, can change from a more conventionally humanoid form into a winged flying form or form more suited for climbing (though both can climb) respectively.
The main character of the series is a Raksura named Moon. His Raksura colony was wiped out when he was very young, and he ended up going through life with very little knowledge of what he was and if there was more of himself.
Moon begins the book living in a “groundling” village, when his nature is discovered by the village, and he is poisoned, staked out, and left for dead. He is rescued by another Raksura, Stone, who explains what he is, and takes him to another Raksura court, Indigo-Cloud. Because Moon knows fuck and all about Raksura society, he provides our narrative insight.
The risk with a character like Moon is that he could become overly passive as he tries to roll with an unfamiliar culture (as in some “travelogue” works of fantasy and science fiction), or become petulant as he doesn’t fit in or clashes with members of the culture they’re entering. The former case thankfully never happens. In the latter case, Moon is hostile and fights back when clashes occur, but in part that is because the Raksura draw their cultural cues significantly from animal behaviors (and predator dominance behavior in particular) – so rather than coming across as being a jackass, it works in context.
The power dynamics inside the court of Indigo Cloud are interestingly laid out, and makes for an interesting political story, without getting into the literal backstabbing intrigue of some other works. Not that the book lacks for action, tension, or threats. The world has The Fell, another group of shifters, some of which look similar to Raksura. This caused tension for Moon when he lived amongst groundlings when he was discovered to be a shifter, as they would mistake him for a Fell.
The Fell are legitimately terrifying – evoking a horde of monstrosities of various sizes, almost like what Orcs and Goblins are supposed to evoke, but without decades of epic fantasy writers and D&D campaigns (not that there’s anything wrong with those), defanging them by using them as mooks. The Fell are either monstrous, inhuman(oid) and intractable in the case of the Dakti and Kethel (the foot soldiers and heavy hitters of the Fell), or cold, cunning, and sociopathic in the case of Fell Rulers.
I really enjoyed this book, I’m definitely going to move on to the rest of the series.
The Cloud Roads is currently available from Amazon.com.