Group Reads of the Raksura - March - The Cloud Roads
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Discussion over on my thread indicated that many of us have either read Martha Wells' The Cloud Roads or have it in the TBR, so it sounded ripe for a group read.
Moon has spent his life hiding what he is - a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself... someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community. What this stranger doesn't tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power... that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony's survival... and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save himself... and his newfound kin.This is a science fantasy setting with no humans at all, something surprisingly rare in science fiction and fantasy where often at best we have a human from an alien viewpoint (Pride of Chanur, anyone?) and at worst we have the tired trope of the human who joins an alien society and saves them all (James Cameron's Avatar, for example). The idea of stories without humans fascinates me, as it gives the opportunity to tell stories with different, possibly radically different, social norms and biology without regard for accuracy or plausibility along the lines of human history.
Wells' other work includes the Ile-Rien series (The Element of Fire, The Death of the Necromancer, and a trilogy), a couple of standalones (City of Bones, Wheel of the Infinite), a couple of "girls' own adventure" YA books (Emilie and the Hollow World, Emilie and the Sky World), as well as tie-in novels for Stargate: Atlantis (Reliquary) and Star Wars (if you like Princess Leia, I definitely recommend her Leia-focused Razor's Edge!) The Cloud Roads has been in my TBR for a couple of years now, and I'm excited to finally get to it.
The Cloud Roads is available in paperback or ebook ($6 and DRM-free at Baen in multiple formats, around $10 elsewhere in the US), or as part of an ebook omnibus with the other two books in the trilogy, The Books of the Raksura. It's also available as an audible from Audible and iTunes, which is the format I'll be reading along in. In addition to the trilogy, there are some extras on Wells' website, a short story in the anthology The Other Half of the Sky, and four novellas forthcoming in two volumes- I'm loosely planning to pace this group read at one book every two months, with The Cloud Roads in March, The Serpent Sea in May, The Siren Depths in July, placing us on track to read the first volume of novellas when it's released in September, but we can see how things go. (Edit: general consensus was to keep on rolling, so we'll be going for The Serpent Sea in April!)
I've given some thought to the issue of spoilers after the recent topic on how to participate in a group read- recognizing that people read at different places, I'm going to try starting with the thread open to general spoilers up to 25% of the way through the book for the first week of March, opening it to spoilers up to 50% the second week (starting Monday 3/10), 75% the third week (starting Monday 3/17), and the full book the week after that (starting Monday 3/24). If you read faster than this pace, please keep any spoilers clearly marked with SPOILER and/or behind a spoiler tag (<spoilers>spoilers go here</spoilers>).
Looking forward to reading and discussing with all of you!
Also, isn't the cover art for this book incredible? I love the dizzying perspective.
If life keeps interfering with my quiet audiobook time, I may switch over to print to keep up and actually get finished this month.
My interest is engaged so far, although I am withholding judgment on the likeable but dumb lover and the smart but abrasive and unlikeable other woman that Moon was assigned to live with until I see more of them- which may not be much more, given that the first line of the book says the Cordans are going to throw Moon out. After reading City of Bones last year, where I waited with some dread through the whole book for the usual bad romance tropes to show up between the male and female protagonists and then they didn't and things were handled in a sensible manner suitable for adults, I am willing to give Wells the benefit of the doubt on situations that initially look iffy.
I do have to say as usual I rolled my eyes a little at the passing appearance of the "traditional beauty standards for our world happen to be considered ugly in theirs" trope, where Moon is just too tall and lean to be handsome... somehow this sort of thing always seems to work out in a way that gains sympathy for beautiful-in-our-world characters rather than not-beautiful-in-our-world characters, doesn't it?
>5 Sakerfalcon: The cover is fantastic!
Great characters, powerful female characters, intriguing plot, and very detailed world building. Definitely recommend this book.
If you haven't read Wells' other work, she's an excellent writer, criminally underrated. Death of the Necromancer is a favorite.
>10 JannyWurts:: I adored Necromancer too. The fall of Ile-Rien trilogy took me a while to get into but once I did I couldn't put it down.
Ah, well, I found it now! I loved The cloud roads. It's been a while since I read it, and I'm wondering if I should re-read... I really liked the sequels as well, particularly the last one.
I thought Stone was a great character, he really comes across as a grandfather, but a rather strong en lively one. I thought Raksura society was quite interesting. They are quite egalitarian, I thought. Not just because women rule, but because men are respected despite of that, and because there's no internal 'I'm better than you', for instance between the flighted and the non-flighted. Sure, there are a few idiot bullies in the beginning, but they are clearly not the norm. Seeing all this through the eyes of an outsider is a nice mechanism for showing social structures.
I read the books last year and loved them. I'm very bad at remembering details, but I _do_ remember that I liked the third book best.
Ile-Rien is next on my list. As in 'right now'.
Moon reminds me somewhat of Khat from City of Bones- both are the prickly loner type, for sure, and both were other than the people around them (Moon being a Raksura among groundlings, and Khat being a krismen among humans). Khat had a friend he could rely on in Sagai, and also the rest of the people he lived with, as well as knowing what he was and others like him not being completely uncommon, though, where Moon has none of those things. Khat was also more comfortable in himself, and had a profession, where I don't really get a good sense of what Moon has spent his thirty-five years doing- moving from settlement to settlement and working as a hunter, I suppose?
The Fell are seeming a little over the top evil at this point- not only are they duplicitous and some sort of hive mind, they also smell awful, are ugly, eat corpses, wear necklaces of groundling skulls... My goodness. I hope for at least a little nuance here as the book develops.
The caste system seemingly rooted in who can reproduce is interesting, but I'm not sure how to feel about it yet. All of the female warriors being infertile, and Stone implying that Moon's mother kidnapped his clutch because she was super baby envious is not the best trope with the genre's record in general of women who don't want children probably being evil or not real women, and having just revisited Pern for the first time in a while last year with all of its iffy reproduction-based hierarchy there, I'm a little wary. (Also, the way we learned that same-sex desire isn't completely unknown in the Three Worlds was through Moon being afraid Stone might try to rape him- ech. I hope there is something that balances that out later on.)
For all of that, the book is engaging, and the descriptions of the jungle are lovely and vivid. The setup with the Cordans and the protagonist who doesn't know their own species reminds me of another non-human fantasy I've read, Laurie J. Marks' Delan the Mislaid- I don't really get the sense that there is influence beyond that an ignorant protagonist is a good device for delivering information to the reader about the non-human world, though. M.C.A Hogarth uses a child coming of age and being initiated into a class of scholars rather than an outsider adult to deliver information about her Jokka in Freedom, Spiced and Drunk too. Heidi C. Vlach's Render, which I read through Member Giveaway last year, is the only no-humans fantasy I've read that goes all out with an insider protagonist and relies on context to define unfamiliar terms- it worked well for me, though there did end up being things I didn't understand as clearly as I might have from direct exposition.
In any case, what are your all's thoughts as far as scheduling? Would you prefer to space the reads out every other month so we can line things up with the release of the novellas in September, or are you eager to keep going with The Serpent Sea in April and The Siren Depths in May, going on a hiatus and picking back up with the novellas when they come out?
If we decide to skip a month and continue in May, I may start a parallel series group read that alternates with this one (Point of Hopes, The Steerswoman, God Stalk, The Killing Moon, and Swordspoint in my TBR pile all perked up at this), but I will wait and do it in sequence afterward if we continue.
Stem: Those who are keeping on, do you want to keep going directly with The Serpent Sea in April?
Now, I just need to finish The Cloud Roads before the end of March...! I've just arrived at the Golden Isles. I want to see more Jade- she caught my attention in the short story in The Other Half of the Sky last year, but interactions between her and Moon have (understandably) been pretty limited so far. Well, I'll keep reading...
And I'm looking forward to continuing with The serpent sea!
1. Moon relaxing into Raksuran behavioral norms regarding shifting, hissing and flaring spines, and so on was so subtly done that I didn't even realize it until he said he needed to stop doing it when they were going back among groundlings. This impressed me greatly how easily I had sunk into the world Wells created, and I am really, really looking forward to visiting the Indigo Cloud Court when it is in less peril in the future books.
2. I was pleased with the resolution to Selis' story. I liked Selis.
3. While reading, I naturally placed the emphasis on the second syllable in rak-SOO-ra and ar-BOR-uh. The audiobook narrator, however, reads these as RAK-suh-ra and AR-bor-uh, so I'm guessing that is probably the canonical pronunciation. How did the words appear to you as you read, one of these or something else entirely?
4. I sometimes had trouble visualizing the scale of different creatures, especially when it came to Stone's Aeriat form versus the others and the kethel vs the dakti and Raksuran children versus adults. Did anyone else have this problem? I also had a little bit of trouble keeping some of the minor characters separate in my head, so I may screw up names a bit...
5. The naming of things is very important in an alien environment, and Wells' names were very good I thought- dakti and kethel specifically seemed very evocative and spot-on. I wasn't so sure, however, about the choice of "groundling" to describe the Raksura's human-like forms and "Raksuran" to describe the others- groundling seemed like a general category like "mammal" to me, so it seemed like talking about a werewolf having wolf and mammal forms. Aren't both forms Raksuran? Is the implication that this is just how Moon thinks of things since we're in his narration, which I could understand given that he lived among groundlings and would be working from that perspective, or that this is how the Raksura actually think of themselves too?
6. Moon having such a good command of the Raksuran language was a little unbelievable, but I'm willing to give the story a pass on that one.
7. The Fell remain to me, however, the most one-dimensionally evil villains I've seen in some time. What are your all's thoughts on this? Does it bother you that they seem to check every box on the evil list? I can sort of look past it since nobody's human, but I'm trying to process how I feel when I probably wouldn't put up with this from a created culture of humans.
8. It was interesting that the Raksura ended up originally being two different species. What does that imply for the Aeriat's seeming instinctive desire to protect the Arbora, and for Chime's sudden transition between the two? And breeding between the lines produces mentor powers... I suspect perhaps the Fell are also from two lines, from the original Aeriat and whatever the dakti/kethel are- this may explain why the dakti and kethel are... sub-sentient (we're told this, but I didn't really see it- they talk to each other in the Fell language, even, and that seems like a marker of human-level intelligence to me) and the Rulers and Progenitors(?) aren't.
9. The cross-breeds being played as pure evil didn't sit well with me at all- the narrative bore out the Raksura's initial disgust and dislike through their actions, though.
10. Was there any build-up to the revelation about Moon and Liheas? I read the book piecemeal over a long time, so I might not have the best idea of continuity, but it seemed like that came out of left field a little, and really should have been something that came to mind for Moon much earlier.
11. If I wasn't aware that Wells had sympathetic gay characters (I believe in The Death of the Necromancer? I've not read that one yet) elsewhere in her work, I would be wary of her work on that count from what I see here. How much worse is Moon's fear that Stone will rape him early in the book knowing that he has already been raped by Liheas, an extraordinarily beautiful (and completely evil, of course) Fell ruler? When the Fell have so many other stereotypically evil traits, and given the long history of non-straightness being one of those traits in the evil stereotype bucket, I'm really bothered that "beautiful evil man who raped our male hero whose purpose in life as one of the few fertile males is to help repopulate our species" is coming up here.
I still can't peg Raksuran norms here, Jade (I think? It might have been Selis) casually tells Moon that he has bad taste in women- and men (which er on its own since his "taste" in men is... uh, getting raped, we don't see him being interested in men otherwise?) without any seeming judgment, but I wish there would be some representation on the sympathetic side to balance things out. I'm willing to give Wells the benefit of the doubt that there is worldbuilding that just didn't make it on the page here- but what is here on the page is really, really not good.
12. Wells seemed to carefully avoid using "man" and "woman" for the Raksura, choosing "male Raksura" or specific single-gender terms like queens or consorts instead- except for some of the children, where she used "boy." I wonder if this wasn't to continue to evoke an alien feel, but Raksuran society seemed even more biology is sex is gender is destiny than human society. In addition, as I mentioned with the crossbreeds earlier, I think there's a lot to think about here regarding the narrative being so concerned with children and who gets to raise them- we have the "wrong" children in the crossbreeds, who are only half-Raksura and pure evil, the implication that Moon's mother stole him because she was driven insane by not having children of her own, infertile female Raksura as warriors (who might be go insane because they can't have babies and steal babies to have babies of their own)- but fertile queens as better warriors... but queens' power seems to come at least partially from their ability to manipulate others into not shifting rather than being because they are awesome in their own right too.
13. Speaking of queens, I was glad Pearl was handled with some nuance, but really, it seemed like Stone was the one actually running things... By coincidence, the other book I'm currently reading, Champion of the Rose also had a female leader (not a queen but a regent, because the royal family was thought to be extinct) who was burnt out and hateful and generally past her expiration date and in need of replacement, and her son was really running things- but alas, the Regent there does not seem so lucky. Is this trope a thing? I really don't like it if it is. I want to see competent, adult women actually legitimately in charge of things and respected instead of tolerated!
14. The dakti and kethel don't even get gendered pronouns like people- they are "it," a choice that further marks them as sub-sentient animals. Stone, when meets him on the floating island, is also an it.
15. The Fell's plan for chasing Moon really still didn't seem to make that much sense- they were killing consorts and others at Indigo Cloud through their eeevil crossbreed magic, why wouldn't they have just taken those consorts and queens? Was it because of Liheas' obsession with Moon, the other ruler seemed to want him as well, I guess the whole evil gay rapist hive mind fixated on him...?
16. I did like the scene with Jade and Moon after Moon revealed his past with Liheas to her (even though the past reveal made me need to step away from the book for a little bit). I like Jade, and hope she has a big part in the next novel.
17. I'm not, however, really seeing the reversed gender norms in their relationship yet. This seemed very much a guy comes to town, saves everyone, gets the girl (in fact women are fighting over him!) story.
18. I want to read the sequel, and am very glad everyone settled on next month instead of waiting- I think that is completely the right decision!
These are my thoughts. (For now, I may have more thoughts later.) Let's talk! What are your thoughts?
Edited to add: This review at Strange Horizons is also a thoughtful and interesting read.
17 - gender reversion - Really? Jade is faster and stronger than Moon, and this is shown several times. When he falls into the water, she saves him. In several of the fights, she is shown to be the stronger one. She takes the initiative in bed. She is more protective of him than he is of her. I do see a gender reversion.
I'm not sure that Jade being stronger than Moon really came through to me, though I do think it was stated- most likely I wasn't reading close enough in some of the fight scenes. Also, being a consort, he will get larger and more powerful as he gets older, like Stone- so I read that as that he will eventually be stronger and more powerful than Jade? Queens don't seem to get the older/larger thing, do they?
I hope that in the next two books the Fell will be explored and shown to have more complexity than just EEEEEVIL villains. I thought there were signs that that might happen when the similarities between them and the Raksura were pointed out during the showdown near the end. The fact that interbreeding produces live young would suggest a close common ancestry.
The treatment of the cross-breeds bothered me too, and I hope that this too will be explored more deeply. After all, it's not those individuals' fault that they have these twisted abilities - might they be able to be trained for good?
I did like the structure of the Raksura society - that every caste was valued whatever its abilities. Females were not seen as more or less important based on whether they could bear children. As for the theory about Moon's mother - was it ever proved to be more than a theory? I think a far more plausible explanation would have been that some danger befell the colony and Moon's "mother" grabbed a clutch to try and get them away from danger - at least, that's the backstory I'd have written. ;-)
What I did think was awesome was the alien-ness of the raksura - they are basically lizard-people, complete with scales, tails and frills. So often shapeshifters take mammalian or avian forms that are attractive aesthetically to the human gaze. I think the Raksura would actually be pretty evil-looking at first glance if one were to encounter them.
Yes, the terms "groundling form/Raksura form" confused me too, as certain non-Raksuran races were also referred to as groundlings. Initially I thought that meant that the groundling form was identical to that of a specific other race (species?), until it became clear a few chapters in that this was not the case.
I too hope that future installments bring some positive same-sex relationships, at least in the background if not up front and centre.
>21 Sakerfalcon: I did like the structure of the Raksura society - that every caste was valued whatever its abilities.
Absolutely agreed! That's what caught my attention as well, within the society people are valued equally, no matter what they do. And it's not the Aeriat that run the show, it's the Arbora, and there is never any resentment about that. Plus, other races (except for the Fell) are not considered less either.
The Raksura certainly seem very evil to most people who encountered Moon! (Though in-story that is because of his resemblance to the Fell... from the cover art, however, it seems like the Raksura's wings are more batlike and the Fell's are more birdlike/feathered, which is an interesting reversal in and of itself.) But yes, lizard-people get short shrift on most things.
I would have expected some sympathy for the crossbreeds as well, but instead it was all horror and disgust that was completely justified by their actions. (There are the "evil-only race where one drop of evil blood also makes you evil" and to some extent "mental illness as evil" with the Fell progenitor/queen who couldn't even do emotions right so her face was like a creepy mask- the thought occurs to me repeatedly that Wells is going full out with all of these evil tropes to subvert them somehow, but given the Fell's legitimately awful behavior with wiping out so many groundling settlements I'm not sure how she could make them sympathetic to me at this point.) Maybe they will have more depth in the future as well? I think we'll be seeing more given the way this one ended.
Regarding Moon's mother, I think it bothers me more that that's the conclusion that the Raksura jump to than if it's what would have happened- the fact that "oh, crazy for babies" came to mind before "fleeing disaster, saved babies" seems very telling. (That's the backstory I have in mind that probably happened as well- but why flee so far away from where there are Raksura instead of seeking another court for help? I have a suspicion there's also an element of trying to escape the Fell, and something more special about Moon than his meeting with Liheas that got them all after him specifically.) I have little doubt we'll find out the truth before the end of the series, it seems a natural plot point to pursue.
Also, yes... I wish authors would remember that people from marginalized groups are probably going to be reading their books if they have an audience of any size, and just do a quick double check to make sure that they aren't unintentionally equating things like sexual orientation, gender expression, or disability with evil by only having evil characters have certain traits. (This is the kind of thing I would hope people would look out for in editing and revision too, the same as, say, continuity errors and that kind of thing.)
I always hope for positive representation, but failing that (and asking for presence in a story rather than absence of problem elements borders on telling authors what they can write which I don't think is useful or productive- I can understand authors who do not want to write about groups they are not a part of, whether because they want to see characters who are like themselves in the story or they are uncomfortable with the idea of doing it wrong), I think that a lack of negative representation is something possible for anyone to achieve with awareness, good faith, and a little research about the history of stereotypical representation of marginalized groups in the genre. I think making sure not to punch people in the face when they try to read your book, as Ann Leckie (and possibly others) have put it, is a craft skill as valuable and necessary as coherent worldbuilding and continuity if not more so.
>23 zjakkelien: Interesting, thanks for looking that up! I think The Cloud Roads is a good introduction to the Three Worlds, but of course one book isn't enough to contain everything about such a different setting so my thoughts are extrapolating from incomplete data- I expect things will deepen and become more complex or change over the next two books, probably overturning some of the tropes I'm afraid will show up. If The Serpent Sea is your least favorite, I'm curious what your favorite of the three is?
Oh, I just checked my reviews, and after reading the third book, this is part of what I wrote:
The final instalment in this series is excellent. I think I may like it best of the entire series. It is certainly as good as the first book. I think one of the main reasons is that this books concentrates on the Raksura. There is quite a bit about Indigo Cloud, Moon's (the main character's) home. It has all the good points of the previous two books (original world, great non-humans, good characters, extremely egalitarian society (meaning remarkably little chauvinism))and it concentrates on all the things I liked about the previous books.
So I guess the third one was my favorite. I gave the first and third one 5 stars, the second one got only 3 stars.
>25 zjakkelien: Interesting- I'll look forward to the third one then, and will be curious to see how I like the second one.