I started reading Martha Wells twenty years ago, when her debut novel The Element of Fire came out. I picked up her City of Bones soon after, and then The Death of the Necromancer and Wheel of the Infinite. With the first two books, I was enthralled – this was clearly a writer to watch, and I was surprised she didn’t get more attention. Death of the Necromancer I found to be be a bit too political for my taste – too much courtly steampunk, not enough magic. Wheel of the Infinite put her back on track. I was disappointed when Wells, in her next books, turned so heavily back to the Ile-Rien world of Element and Necromancer. The Fall of Ile-Rien books were fun, but not really exceptional, and I followed new releases less avidly than before.
When I came across The Cloud Roads earlier this year, I was excited again – a new Wells book and series, and much more focused on classic fantasy. I’m sorry to say that it’s been a bit of a let down – not in its content, which is great worldbuilding fantasy, but in its writing. Wells, whose writing I admired, simply doesn’t do a great job of presentation. There’s a complex world here, but its attributes sneak out bit by unexplained bit. Clearly Wells is preserving some mystery for discovery in later books, but she does so in a way that is frustrating here and now. There’s simply not enough background for some of the hints – even when viewed from the perspective of Moon, who is as ignorant of some of this as we are. There are some prequel short stories available, and perhaps Wells assumes acquaintance with those – strange, considering some have just come on the market. More likely, she simply knows the world so well that she forgets we don’t.
The great foe in this book are the ‘Fell’ – another shapechanging race that is disappointingly one-dimensional – they are evil because … they just are, and they smell bad to boot. Naturally, most of them are unintelligent and brutish. (One could make a case that foes tend to be foes because they’re brutish, but most fantasists don’t bother with more than a sheen of explanation, and Wells is no exception.) There’s a smidgen of complication offered toward the end, but basically the world is black and white. This despite the fact that both the good and the bad shapechangers have rigidly hierarchical, genetically-based societies. Not a lot of democracy going on.
There’s a lot that’s unexplained (e.g., how one class of shapechanger suddenly shifts to another in response to demographic pressures), but also quite a bit that pops out unexpectedly (Moon suddenly knows things that we, following right along with him, have never encountered).
Moon’s own decisions are at times a bit thin. He makes the occasional pretense of protest, but it’s usually clear where the book is going; there’s no major risk of an unexpected turn.
I may need to go back to City of Bones. It’s possible that I was so taken with the concept and setting that I set aside unexceptional writing. That’s not how I remember it, though, and for the present, I simply wonder what happened to the Wells of the 90s, and whether she’ll be back.
I’m disappointed, but while the writing here may not be stellar, the story is fairly good. I’m undecided whether to read the rest of the series. If you’re looking for decent fantasy in a well-imagined world – one that’s more than just medieval-with-dragons – this book is a good choice. If you’re looking for sophisticated, philosophical writing, try A. A. Attanasio.