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a large black winged person flying through the sky among floating islands

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. (source)

I have a weird relationship with this novel, which began last year, when everyone (and I mean, it felt like everyone) was telling the world this book had to be read now. Run, don't walk! to the store to get your copy BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE1. The fervor over this title led me to it last year, predictably months behind everyone else. I picked it up in March and promptly failed out.

Don't worry, there's a happy ending here.

Hype is a killer for me. I go in expecting to get what all the people hyping it got out of the words and the story and end up frustrated. We bring our own experiences to each read-through of a story, and yes, there's a lot about the clashes of cultures, the journey of a special orphan (okay, that's not always a plus), and the shock and wonder over a new culture. Those things are integral to the parts of the story I found thought-provoking, but by themselves they aren't interesting enough to me.

My first pass through this book suffered from this hype because I found Moon more of a cypher for the reader than a character in his own right. I quit around 100 pages in (a fair shake!) because he was boring the hell out of me. The trouble with reading reviews before I read a book is that I'm very easily influenced into seeing the perspective of whatever majority opinion is floating around in the aether about a particular title, especially if people abuse exclamation marks (note to reviewers: don't abuse exclamation marks).

My second pass through the book, on my own terms, was infinitely better and more thoughtful. I looked at the story without trying to fold everything I knew or had been told about its fantasy tropes and the history of fantasy and the context of this book in the fantasy canon and why even though it was a retread it was exciting and awesome in previous reviews and just read the damn book. After my experience with this book within fandom, I agree there's something to be said for NOT reading reviews before you read a book. Of course, I often opt in to spoilers when they're available and can't resist seeing why someone felt a particular way about a book. I have an obsession with negative reviews. Ha. Let's all pretend to be surprised.

This book managed to hit both my "avoidance/procrastination as a viable life choice la la la" and "family of choice" tropes dead center when I made it far enough into the story. The first was obvious, I see parts of myself in Moon and spent a large part of the book going "JUST GIVE IN. DON'T BE ME, MOON." It hit the second one by going backward, because Stone discovers Moon and Moon returns with Stone to the Raksura and his family is "found".

Frustrated curiosity getting the better of caution, he asked, "What are you?"

Stone glanced at him from under skeptical brows. "Did you get hit on the head?" Moon didn't respond, and after a moment Stone's expression turned thoughtful. He said, "I'm a Raksura. So are you."

"I'm—" Moon started, then realized he had no way to finish that sentence. He had never known where he came from or what his people were called. And he speaks the language your mother taught you. Moon didn't want to believe it. But if it was a ploy, it was a patently bizarre one. He's trying to make me think he didn't bring me up here to kill me, or... He had no idea. (p. 28)

Do I ever know how much knowing you and your family are related doesn't necessarily mean you would make them your first choice (or second, or third).

The similarities between my reaction to the idea of family (often toxic, can be abusive, family is not the end-all-and-be-all of personal connection, parents are human and sometimes they fuck up in serious, life-altering ways...) and Moon's reaction to family after this revelation didn't resonate with me the first time because Moon felt too much like I could just lay my own personality on top of his and run with it. I don't necessarily read to "relate" to characters; I read to experience the different perspectives of characters and expand the way I look at my world and the world as a whole. The second time was better because I went far enough in the story to see Moon own his situation and his feelings about his found family that gave me a different perspective. Moon has a unique chance to stay with the Raksura, even though their customs and culture are foreign to him, but he can also disregard it and leave. That's a complicated choice, and Moon handles it pretty well under the circumstances, once I got beyond his grouchiness and silent threats to leave and looked under the surface to where he reacts to what amounts to his nesting choices. How do you decide whether to stay or to go? How do you decide whether to embrace a culture you never knew you could fit into, but by doing so give up pieces of yourself you never knew you cared about all that much? To make choices for those people that will have lasting consequences, both personally and politically?

Ten or so pages away from where I quit the book the first time, Moon became someone real for me and that allowed me to look back on his experience with the Raksura more thoroughly. He's alone in a crowd, everything he's known has been thrown for a loop, he's facing a lot of problems, at least two people want him for sexy times and he's not sure they really care about his opinions (where've I seen that before) and he's thinking about how to not deliberately think about the problem, because he doesn't know the answer. Yet he makes a choice that's both personal and political with Jade which changed everything for me. Boy, do I feel like a dummy for not holding out for ten more pages.

Moon looked at Jade and demanded, "Are you just going to let this happen?"

She turned to him, her spines flaring out in anger. She said, "Then stop it." (p. 114)

I wish I could explain what about the next few pages sold me on Moon and this book, but alas, it is a strand of personal preference on the dissipating wind of "Finally, action!" It's an event that highlighted the vulnerability of Moon and his inability to make a final decision about his future. Consequences, I said! SOLD.

It's really tempting to judge this book on the surface conditions it introduces: a lost orphan with an inevitably special past, his presence which solves a tough problem (and creates new, harder issues to solve within the culture itself), in a fantasy world of indeterminate age or structure with scary, oppressive, murderous capital-V-Villains. Where this novel ended up succeeding for me is in, yes, how Moon begins to fit into the culture. He folds himself into the Raksura in the most surly, belligerent, wonderful way possible: after the above quote, he throws himself into a life-or-death fight after he assesses Jade's comment for what he thinks she's saying; he picks up and shuns Raksura practices as he sees fit; and he has fascinating relationships with every other Raksura who are not Jade and Pearl. The undertones to his attempts to fit are also intriguing. He introduces germ warfare to a race ignorant of what it may mean for them long term, which leads into larger questions about the politics of extinction and who deserves to live when the villain is both simplistic, somewhat sympathetic but embodying all the worst possible things. He also creates interesting gender politics. The latter items fascinated me, but in the end, only reinforced the dominant structure of Earth-level monogamy after hinting around so much more. Maybe in The Serpent Sea? (Someone spoil me! JUST DO IT.)

I did like other relationships in this book, like Moon's with Stone, and the idea of Moon's with Jade (provided we see some of this "taking other partners" business come to fruition). However, I love Chime. I don't want to spoil his story, but I seriously love him. There are a lot of parallels in this book, but the most rewarding one is between Chime and Moon. Chime's journey into his position within the Raksura compares to Moon also trying to find his place. They challenge and help each other with their own perspectives because they're both going through similar issues and have similar fears. And also, first friendships! Chime defends Moon without even knowing him, and then follows up with this exchange:

"Can you talk?" Chime demanded.

The woman lifted her brows at him in reproof. "Chime."

Chime waved a hand in exasperation. "Well, he hasn't said anything!"

Moon folded his arms, even more uncomfortable. He knew he probably looked surly, but there wasn't much he could do about that. "I can talk." (p. 59)

Then later, Moon makes a friend, in his surly, I'm-an-asshole-but-you'll-probably-like-me-anyway-because-I'm-the-star way, and there is frolicking. There is frolicking in water.

When Moon swam back to see if they were really trying to kill each other, Chime tackled him. Since Chime's claws were sheathed, Moon just grabbed him and went under, taking him out of the shallows and all the way down to the weedy bottom, some thirty paces down. He then shot back up. By the time they surfaced, Chime was wrapped around him, wings tightly tucked in, clinging with arms, legs, and tail. "I didn't know we could do that!" he gasped.

"You learn something new every day," Moon told him, grinning. (p. 84)

I was suckerpunched from the beginning and there was no hope for me. That makes it even sadder that there are only three stories on the AO3 for Chime/Moon. WHY ME?

Stitch falling over and raising one shaking paw back into the frame.

The other part of this story I enjoyed was the discovery of warfare and technological improvement: how to assess technology to help benefit the culture, how to treat with other cultures, how to make political connections for purposes of trade, and how even when you jump those hurdles your only reward is more work in breaking down cultural barriers one-on-one in hostile, dangerous situations! Moon's introduction to the Raksura is not only focused on his culture shock but on the culture shock of the Raksura themselves; as their situation becomes dire enough, they have to face a reality of asking for help and using technology they wouldn't otherwise touch, face becoming similar to the culture they're fighting, and experience the perspective of having to leave home — something Moon knows about all too well.

"You want to transport the Arbora in a flying boat?" Knell said, staring at Stone as if he had shifted and managed to end up with a second head.

Stone lifted his gray brows, fixing a concentrated stare on Knell. "Why not?"

"I don't know." Knell stepped back off the map, making a helpless gesture. "It sounds crazy." (p. 98)

I also think it's telling that it's an elder speaking here — members of a group who are often portrayed as set in their ways — who proposes they reach out for help and it's the younger Raksura who are suspicious of the entire plan. That was a lovely touch. :)

And this veers into big spoiler territory, but the connection Moon makes between the Raksura and germ warfare could have been completely mishandled, but instead it was both a troubling and curious thing for him to contribute other than his ability to breed. Moon is, therefore, both life and death to the Fell, which creates a greater resonance given his backstory. Moon watches the Fell wage war against the Three Worlds, and then the Raksura, but it's not until he has a support system that he's able to wage war back. Score one for family. :)

The Fell as villains were a complicated mix of problematic and sad for me. They were fairly one-dimensional, because they seem to terrorize as a biological imperative, as if it's a function of who they are to destroy what they touch. They were so bloodthirsty, but were apparently closer than many other races via telepathy. They're beautiful and destructive, but their representation in the novel makes it seem like they are very little more than seducers and rapists until the end when I just felt sorry for them. They're monstrous, yes, but they're also desperate, yet not, on the whole, particularly unreasonable in their choices for trying to save themselves.

But do the Fell deserve what happens to them? Do they bring that on themselves? Is there a right way to engage in a war for survival among sentient races? I haven't seen it discussed, potentially because there's a lot of spoilers surrounding the issue. It would be a fascinating talking point to compare the plights of two species and see what an intellectual exercise in reproductive coercion versus germ warfare and the things we do to make sure we survive would turn up.

However, even though the Fell are the Big Bad (maybe especially so) and — DEFINITELY SPOILERS HERE so stop now — I also found the discovery of Moon's past with the Fell troubling. I am really unhappy about how this book portrays the one same-sex encounter (at the least dubious consent) we see only for the heterosexual encounter that comes immediately after to be cast in pure liquid gold of healing ladybits (you're welcome for that visual). Maybe this changes in later books; I'll have to read them and see if the politics of sexual relationships — especially Moon's — evolves over the course of the trilogy.

Oh, the relationships in the book. Yeah, the book is about a continuation of a species. It's going to involve some heterosexual reproductive shenanigans. However, the book suggested that relationships worked a certain way but they never delivered. The most subversive thing that happened was that Moon was trapped in a triangle between two women who kept treating him like a Raksura when he wasn't. His life up until that point had been utterly free and the introductions of queens who could so easily control him was a wrench in the equations Stone was running to help the colony. The courting rituals that Moon ignores also contribute to his feelings of ostracization, because he never saw them as gifts. Taking gifts could — it's not super explicit in the text, but it's how I read it — result in unfortunate sexual encounters, and possibly coercion. Pretty much everything, at every turn, put him at odds with the Raksura. The elongated plot about his potential relationships with Jade and Pearl made me tired because the book codes the ending fairly early that we're just going to borrow Romance Plot #85251 from Generic Male Fantasy, where the hero gets the girl and there's none of this extracurricular activity the book presents shown anywhere. It's a shame the book basically sets a One True Pairing frame around Moon and Jade after hinting around so much more. Yes, it's a trilogy. Yes, things may be delivered unto your demanding narrative inbox in those books, Renay! But it's still disappointing, because I have to trust it happens (SPOIL ME SOMEONE, PLEASE.) It's easy to sell it, too, because Moon doesn't fit in the culture and doesn't seem inclined to form any other bonds besides with Jade. So it's a one way ticket to Monogamyville, and the strict lines of heteronormativity in the book are reinforced and mean that other relationships and threads (like Chime! Oh gosh. WHY BOOK WHY????) are shut out and MY DREAMS ARE CRUSHED. It's like the world tempts me with polyamory and threesomes and then goes, "AND NONE FOR YOU."

tinman saying now i know i have a heart because it's breaking

Nevertheless, The Cloud Roads is an awesome book. It's going on interesting adventures, even if those adventures are more like camping trips in the backyard. There's nothing inherently wrong with sticking close to home, and anyway, you can still see the stars and dream of a really interesting world populated by fascinating culture that feels huge and epic in scope. It's not only a story about fitting in and finding a home, but about struggle with being powerful and influential and not having the experience, or even the desire, to wield those political tools.

It's about force and choice and what we do when we're out of options, and the lengths we'll go to protect ourselves. It's about the introduction of biochemical warfare and technology into a culture new to both concepts, and how the people of that culture react and adapt and whether their culture will survive if they fail to do so. It's about cross-cultural peace and understanding and fostering allies. It's about safety, love, the comfort of having a home, And finally, it's about the benefits — and the drawbacks, because I wouldn't be here if there weren't any — of family.

1 Apparently everyone is ALREADY too late because the book is going out of print? NIGHT SHADE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP IT.

Winifred Sanderson is not impressed.

Other Reviews:
The Book Smugglers, Fantasy Cafe, Janicu's Book Blog, Fantasy Review Barn, yours?

Supplemental Material:

Date: 2013-02-20 05:06 pm (UTC)
jinian: (wicked ino)
From: [personal profile] jinian
It doesn't stay monogamous. :)

Date: 2013-02-20 10:35 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Yay, I am glad to know this too because now I am more likely to read this book.


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