Night Shade Books, 2011, 278 pages
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.
The Cloud Roads is set in a world completely devoid of humans. This is truly an alien secondary world. There are a seemingly infinite number of humanoid "groundling" races, distinguished by various configurations of fur, scales, feathers, tusks, etc., and the implication that they are probably mostly from related evolutionary branches. The world (referred to as the Three Worlds) is a low-tech fantasy one in which some groundlings build cities while others are nomadic tribesmen, but there are (as yet) no empires or significant technological development beyond basic stone and metalworking. Magic exists in the world, but it seems to be found only in the natural abilities of various creatures, plants, and elements.
Moon, the protagonist, has been living among groundlings for most of his life, but he is not a groundling. He does not know what he is, only that he can magically shift from a humanoid, groundling-like form to a much larger winged, reptilian form. He keeps this hidden from groundlings, because he would easily be mistaken for one of the demonic creatures known as the Fell who prey on everything and everyone else, destroying groundling cities, razing colonies and villages.
Eventually, Moon discovers that he is actually of a race called the Raksura, who have been warring with the Fell forever. Brought back to a Raksura court ("nest" would be more appropriate), Moon learns that he is a Consort in a court that has two rival Queens in need of consorts. Right, this time it's the boy who has two hot chicks fighting over him. Except he understands nothing of Raksura politics and courting, so he keeps aggravating his new brood while spending most of his time planning to run away, just like he's run away from all his previous homes.
Eventually, the Fell show up and there are a lot of aerial battles and eviscerating claws put to bloody use and heads being ripped off, running chases, dungeon rescues, big "ewwww!" reveals, and generally an adequate amount of action and the protagonist finally, finally pulling his head out of his scaly ass and fighting.
The Raksura and the Fell are both winged, reptilian shapechangers. The word "dragon" does not exist in this world, but The Cloud Roads reminded me a lot of the Dragonriders of Pern. Raksura and Fell do not breathe fire, but they are divided into castes, described by color, and have telepathic powers, and there are all kinds of weird caste/gender politics.
Secondarily, The Cloud Roads reminded me of Elfquest. Yes, Elfquest, the Wendy and Richard Pini comic, with its cute but bloodthirsty elves living in magical savagery, pursued by more monstrous creatures, and when not fighting for survival, having soap-operatic romantic feuds with lots of hissing and baring of teeth and swords, or in the case of the Raksura, claws.
So once I realized I was reading a 21st century fantasy novel in the spirit of Pern and Elfquest, I was caught between nostalgia and snickering.
On the one hand, the world and the characters are kind of cool, inspiring fan art like this:
The Fell by neondragon on deviantART
On the other, it inspires twee art like this:
I did not find Moon compelling. He wallows and angsts and dithers. Because he has spent much of his life hiding his true nature from groundlings who will kill him if they find out what he is, even as he sleeps with them, taking some of them as wives (hmm, allegory anyone?), he is mistrustful and prepared to run even when he finds himself among his own kind. It takes him many chapters to realize that he has found his people and he needs to stand and fight, not keep moping because no one wants him even though it's obvious they do.
Then there is the — I don't know what to call it — omni-bisexuality? between Fell and Raksura. The Fell are described as foul, demonic creatures with a stench that repels Raksura from miles away, yet some of them can assume groundling forms that are sexy-hawt enough to have Foe-Yay sex with them. What is this even. Now, this ends up being a significant part of the Fell's long-range plans, but there were some scenes that made me think I was reading slash fanfic.
I also get annoyed when I see certain mannerisms being used so repeatedly that I notice them and it's obvious neither the author nor the editor did: the characters are constantly "lifting a brow" or "rolling their shoulders" when they are not flexing wings and frilling and doing other dragon-y things.
Nonetheless, this was a quick, entertaining read, and I can recommend it if you're looking for an epic fantasy that's a little unusual and definitely not Ye Olde Medievally Swords & Sorcery.
Verdict: The Cloud Roads was not bad; it has definite original elements and lots of action. But parts of it grated on me, and at a certain point I found myself skimming, which is a bad sign and makes me disinclined to read the rest of the series.
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