When we read a novel we expect some degree of novelty. Indeed, one purpose of the repetitions that come to define a genre is precisely to throw into relief specific types of novelty. At the same time, writers are often driven to write by strong concerns, the expression of which can't help but recur in their works. When a writer's oeuvre becomes identifiable by such recurring themes and movements—by variations on a pattern—evaluating a new addition to the oeuvre becomes a matter not only of considering the work itself; we also examine its variation. Does the new work add to the oeuvre in interesting ways? Does it satisfy our craving for novelty? And if does, how?
These were questions that came to mind when reading Martha Wells's latest two novels, The Cloud Roads (2011) and The Serpent Sea (2012), the beginnings of a new series titled The Books of the Raksura.
The first volume, The Cloud Roads, is particularly recognizable as following Wells's established pattern for enjoyable, anthropologically aware secondary-world adventure fantasy. As in nearly all of Wells's previous novels, an implacable menace threatens groups of peoples who just want to be left to themselves, and the core plot of the novel involves these groups uniting against their common foe. As in nearly all her novels, this union is physically embodied by an uneasy romance between a man of one group and a woman of the other. The union is uneasy in part because, as in nearly all of Wells's novels, one lover is a loner and outsider due to a fraught upbringing; the other was born into, or has grown into, insider social status and knowledge. As in nearly all Wells's novels, there is the sense that this union is good and necessary: concern that factions of rule be tempered by more lawless factions. As the story progresses, several other plot movements common to Wells's works recur in The Cloud Roads, notably a final set of chapters that move the story to an entirely new location, and offer a resolution keyed by willingness to self-sacrifice.
There's a sense that never entirely fades, in other words, that not only does The Cloud Roads follow Wells's established pattern of story closely, but that it follows the pattern too closely. Its novelty will be hard fought.
While the shape of the story may not be novel, one area where Wells has never repeated herself is setting. This is part of what made her previous books so appealing. Even her novels set in the pseudo-European nation of Ile-Rien take place in different eras—analogues of seventeenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries—and those settings are bookended by the blasted desert of a post-apocalyptic secondary world in City of Bones (1995), surely one of the more imaginative settings in fantasy, and the Malaysian-inspired nation of Wheel of the Infinite (2000) (not to mention the science fictional settings of her Stargate tie-in novels). To this mix The Books of the Raksura introduce a region called the Three Worlds. In a clue of what is to come, these "three worlds" represent not some magical or economic division but different biospheres, the aerial, the terrestrial, and the aquatic. Wells then takes the intriguing step of populating each realm with various species of humanoids, but eschewing any true humans. Moon, the protagonist of the novel, is a Raksura: a winged race of vaguely-reptilian humanoid shape-changers whose society is vaguely insectoid. Different biologically distinct castes among the Raksura fill different social and breeding roles such as warriors, hunters, and consorts. At the top of the pyramid in each colony are typically a handful of queens, one of whom is the ruler. This social organization puts biological hierarchies front and center in our awareness, and Wells keeps them there via subtle reinforcements:
Moon looked across the river. Small swimming lizards stretched out on the rocks across the bank, waiting for them to leave so they could go after the remains of Moon’s fish. (p. 27)
That's innocuous enough, but then a few pages later we read something similar:
Moon thought it over, looking off across the plain. Insects sang in the dark, and the day’s heat still hung in the air. Further away, he could hear movement in the grass, low growls, carrion hunters coming for the carcass of the big furry grasseater [that Moon and Stone, his Raksura guide] had eaten earlier. He had noticed that the big predators kept their distance; he thought there was something about Stone, even in groundling form, that warned them off. (p. 36)
These casual insertions, Moon's awareness of the food chain everywhere he travels, capture a quality of Wells's writing at its best: how her prose conveys information on multiple levels while never feeling forced. It makes clear that a flowing, fast-paced adventure does not need to be utterly, transparently surface level in its storytelling; that richer, carefully constructed prose can make for a richer reading experience, regardless of the story type.
In addition to this focus on the biology of her setting, character point of view marks another departure from Wells's past books. In her previous original novels Wells granted point of view status to the lead male and female characters at a minimum; one of the ways she ramped up the stakes in her Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy was by increasing the number of viewpoints. In The Cloud Roads, however, we experience the story through only a single character. Moon is a male Raksura consort who grew to adulthood separated from others of his species, and ignorant of their customs. Now he is invited to rejoin and rediscover his kind.
In many ways a single point of view is the perfect choice for an account centered on experiencing a new culture. Moon's outsider perspective mirrors the reader's own lack of information about Raksuran cultural norms, and uncertainty of other character's motivations. Wells doesn't actually do much with the limited viewpoint, however. The clearly defined factions among the Raksura, and the easy, harmonious understanding between members of the faction that recruits Moon, are akin to Wells's multi-point of view novels, with all but one viewpoint removed. The result is that a secondary character such as Jade, the young queen Raksura whose need for a consort results in Moon's being invited to the Raksuran colony, is made to feel more like a reward for Moon's self-actualization than a person in her own right. The easy camaraderie between Moon and Jade means that there's little sense of Jade as someone who has successfully helped form and realize a plan to save her colony, and who may have sacrificed in the course of that plan's realization. Her own conflicts are minimized. And we are similarly given little sense those qualities of Jade's that make her so accepting of Moon's eccentricities. This is a tough sell in a book that positions queens as biologically privileged, cloistered leaders, able and expected to command obedience. The extent to which Jade is shown to ignore caste imperatives makes the already questionable class and race dynamics of the tale—great deeds planned and performed for the good of all by racially superior elite class, who work the most good when unconstrained by the rule of law—even more questionable, in the suggestion that they're not biological imperatives at all.
The single point of view also contributes to a novel that moves in only one direction at one pace: full speed ahead. As a result, it is not only Jade, Stone, and the more tertiary characters who never have time to become fully realized (it doesn't help that they all bear short names drawn from nature), but also Moon himself who feels insufficiently developed as a product of his world and situation. While Moon's actions are generally convincing as those of someone with a long-held concern for primary needs—"he had never reacted well to being startled while eating" (p. 92), for example—his thoughts often privilege Western philosophical concepts such as "logical" (p. 167) and "rational" (p. 42). This, despite being a magical shape shifter who lives in a world full of floating islands. Similarly, although Moon has no memory of Raksuran society and has not used the language since he was very young, his constant mode of communication is sarcasm. And sarcasm relies on a shared, confident understanding of a society's customs, expressions, and lingual nuances—or on being a citizen of contemporary Western culture, which treats everything as ironic.
The most ill-fitting Western presence in the narrative, though, is the book's treatment of romance. Wells sets up several societies in the Three Worlds with social-sexual arrangements outside the Western norm—and then proceeds to comport her story in such a manner as to defuse any unconventional aspects. The Raksura are notable in this regard. Among the Raksura, Moon learns that the norm is for Queens to form bonds with several consorts; Queens do not share consorts, but both Queens and consorts can also take casual lovers from other castes, and those other castes do not form exclusive relationships at all (again the whiff of Western stereotypes of lower classes). Yet the book treats Moon and Jade as an exclusive pairing, and indeed a romantic pairing. Moon, so aware of how he fits into the plans of others, somehow never thinks of Jade as one of those planners. Instead their relationship swiftly moves from transactional to the language of modern romance. "You're in love with [Jade]," one character tells Moon. "No," is his knee-jerk reaction, but then he quickly admits, "maybe" (p. 188). Other details reinforce the dominance of modern sexual mores: Moon frequently uses "bastard" as an insult delivered in the Raksuran language, although I'm not sure that concept would even exist, never mind be insulting; we're told that another Queen, Pearl, takes multiple lovers, but only one is ever referred to by name; and while the Raksura have no taboos about casual same-sex physical contact—men may sleep sprawled over each other without sexual connotation—the only same sex sexual contact in the book is presented profoundly negatively. So for all the cultural differences that Wells sets up, the textual representation of Moon and Jade's relationship ends up fully consistent with the modern conservative mores of heterosexual monogamous romance. And this echoes the general feeling I had while reading The Cloud Roads: that too many differences of world and character were surface level only, that Wells wasn't fulfilling the promise implicit in the novel situations she had established.
The problem isn't that worldbuilding inconsistencies invite disbelief of the story's coherent plausibility. We know better than that. The odds are vanishingly small that humanoid life would evolve in the ecosystems of most secondary worlds depicted in fantasy. It thus seems pointless to me to complain that certain attitudes, or certain patterns of speech and action, are anachronistic in these fantasies. The presence of humanoid life is itself anachronistic; the basic misunderstanding has already been committed, and accepted. If humanity itself, or some close analogue, can be selectively placed into a setting, then there is no a priori reason why humanity's institutions, attitudes, etc. cannot. Modern secondary world fantasy strikes me as akin to "thought experiment"-style science fiction in this regard. In both, authors assemble story elements with an eye not to plausibility—nobody complains that Le Guin's Omelas lacks a plausible economic model—but to generating interesting ideas. Such works often present an argument by aesthetics, with improbable situations and juxtapositions used in a manner not unlike poetry to evoke emotion and suggest questions. To do the work of art. When fantasy tales import modern attitudes into pre-modern settings in a way that feels conservative and banal, then, I don't think the failure is an anachronistic failure of factuality in conveying a setting-appropriate pre-modern mindset. Rather it is an aesthetic failure, a foregrounding of the missed chance to present differences of thought that would be of more interest to a modern reader.
What happens in The Cloud Roads is that too much of the book's pattern flattens what is actually Moon's most significant and interesting deviation from the past pattern of Wells's male leads. Those previous male characters frequently faced the challenge of fitting into a society as an outsider. The Cloud Roads, though, is about testing one's fit as an insider, among one's own race. Indeed The Cloud Roads can be seen as an examination of identity focusing exclusively on race. Wells details no dominant culture in the Three Worlds, little sense of nations and borders, and no deeply held religions; among the Raksura there is no money, and gender is much less a social determinant than biological caste. Instead, the variables in play are nearly all racial. Negatively, this includes some racial essentialism, in an opposing race who seem fundamentally evil—they're helpfully called "the Fell"—and in the unquestioned assumption that Moon best belongs among his own race. More positively, Wells uses the Raksuran shape shifting ability as that not-quite-metaphor that fantasy can do so well, evoking the feeling of separation between public and private racial selves, the feeling of being able to pass among a race while never quite belonging. However the book breezes through even these racial elements of assimilation so quickly, it seldom offers—or even reaches for—insights beyond a basic ugly duckling fable. Around the same time that I was thinking about The Cloud Roads, I was also reading several essays on encounters with one's own race in The Wiscon Chronicles Volume 5: Writing and Racial Identity (2011). What is missing in large part from The Cloud Roads are the sort of confronting challenges, difficult decisions, and negotiated solutions that the writers of those essays—I'm thinking specifically of Maurice Broaddus's "WisCon, Stories, and Ontological Blackness" and LaShawn M. Wanak's "Telling Our Stories"—struggled with when coming to terms with their racial identity. Moon may face rejection from the Raksuran colony, but he rejects out of hand any suggestion that he can stay if he acts differently, more like a "proper Raksura." And any such suggestions are muted and toothless. Moon is needed by the colony, and those smart enough to understand this need—the book's litmus test for friend or foe—go along with him just as he already is.
The issue is not what is in the book, then, but what is not. Wells remains a compelling storyteller whose clear prose, goal-driven plotting, and witty, companionable characters should win her fans among those who enjoy the works of writers such as John Scalzi and Lois McMaster Bujold. And The Cloud Roads is the rare quick, pleasant read that doesn't fade immediately from memory on completion—the issues it raises can linger and expand as long as a reader cares to dwell on them. The lingering isn't altogether satisfying, however. The limited engagement with its more interesting material tends to mute the book's novelties, and when it revisits character archetypes and situations that Wells has dealt with before, The Cloud Roads too often feels thin in comparison. The combination is such that while I've often reread favorite sections of past Wells novels, when I set aside The Cloud Roads a year ago it remained set aside.
I did hold out some hope for the second book in the series, though. The Three Worlds and the Raksura held so much promise—and an early glimpse of the second book's cover featured a female Raksura, making me wonder if Wells would be changing the point of view. Let there be no suspense: the answer to this last wondering turns out to be no. And yet, to at least some degree, my hopes were rewarded. In The Serpent Sea many of the limitations of the first book's construction remain, but compared to that first book—and set against Wells's existing oeuvre—it does offer a welcome degree of novelty realized.
The plot of The Serpent Sea is simple enough to sketch. Moon and his colony of Raksura, with the willing and unwilling aid of various other races, have won a significant battle against their long-time enemies, the Fell. The cost of this victory was their home. As a result, Moon's colony now journeys—in magic flying boats—to their long-abandoned ancestral refuge, an enormous tree. When they arrive, they are dismayed to discover that the tree is dying. Moon, Jade, and several retainers thus set out to recover the tree's life-sustaining "seed," that has apparently been stolen. Their journey takes them first to a neighboring colony of other Raksura, and then to a city in the titular Serpent Sea. There is more education for Moon in Raksuran culture, more spelunking in cavern-like structures, more heroic acts, more witty dialogue. Despite the tease of the book's cover, the viewpoint is again Moon's exclusively. In many small but telling ways, however, The Serpent Sea seems aware of the limited engagement of The Cloud Roads with its material, and the new book works to deepen and complexify that engagement.
Some of these complexities are simple but effective additions. When, early in The Cloud Roads, Moon encountered a book written in a language he could read despite the book being found in an ancient ruin on a floating island, it wasn't just unlikely: it also made the story smaller, simpler. In contrast, there is an early scene in The Serpent Sea where Moon encounters writing that he cannot read—and it is Raksuran writing. This makes the world, and Moon's challenge of assimilation, larger, less cocooning. Wells similarly adds complexity to the character naming. The names themselves don't get any more distinctive, but we gain a sense of what a name can mean to a Raksura, which puts an interesting twist on at least one previous character. We also encounter a species that is the closest yet to human, and the contrast—their mores, and sense of their own primacy, seen from the Raksuran perspective—is nicely wrong-footing. And even the biological castes among the Raksura receive some shaking up, as we see in The Serpent Sea the possibility of new Raksura caste hybrids arising spontaneously, based ambiguously on either the will of the shifter or the needs of the colony. It's an interesting combination, of exotic biology and magic, that seems ripe for exploration in future books.
A bigger change in The Serpent Sea is not truly a change from the first book, but a reinforcement, a confirmation. Wells has written—in her Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy—an economically matriarchal human society before. But in this series, and especially apparent here in the second volume, what stand out are her alterations to the gendering of physical social cues among the Raksura, especially romantic cues. In The Cloud Roads Moon was in the initial stages of recovery from years of living in fear and isolation, and he was also in a somewhat literal sense seduced into joining the Raksuran colony. As such it wasn't surprising that Jade as his presumed mate was the physical aggressor of the pair, often drawing him to her literally as well as figuratively. Her efforts, from Moon's perspective, could be read equally as seduction, comforting, and mothering. But in The Serpent Sea, with the two on more equal footing, it becomes impossible for the reader to misunderstand that among Raksura the females are the larger and stronger partner in any pairing.
[Jade] caught his shirt, pulled him close (p. 41)
[Moon] lay down beside her and she tugged him back against her chest (p. 109)
Jade hauled Moon across the stairwell (p. 212)
Jade moved to him and grabbed his shoulders . . . He tried to pull free but she didn't let go. (p. 213)
It's fascinating as a man to read these frequent passages of Moon being physically positioned wherever Jade chooses, and the absence of any reciprocal passages—vaguely discomfiting in the welcomed manner of good speculative fiction, because it makes a reader question why they are discomfited, and whether they should be. (I wonder how such sentences feel for women to read?) Considering that in Western culture the moon is often seen as feminine to the masculine sun, it makes me wonder how loaded the choice of Moon's name was by Wells.
The other big change—also very welcome—involves matters of justice and morality. In past Wells novels it was always fairly easy to assign the label of evil. Evil may have had intermediaries and servants, but there was always a root embodiment, a directing mind. And ultimate blame for the problems Wells's characters were facing, typically the threat of conquest and murder if not genocide (as in The Cloud Roads), fell unambiguously on that root evil. These past books were enjoyable, charming reads in large part because one learned to count on such foes getting, in the court of popular opinion, exactly what they deserved. This doesn't quite happen in The Serpent Sea. In fact what Wells rather expertly does is craft an ending that gives her existing readers, who know what (they think) to expect, enough to satisfy, in the shape of something that should satisfy; while also being new and revelatory amongst her own work. This isn't the drastic beheading of genre tropes that writers such as George R. R. Martin and J. V. Jones have hung their hat on; but it's a quiet subversion, a subversion through friendliness, that makes the story more interesting than the typical adventure fantasy. And not only is it in the book's conclusion that the arc of the plot finally becomes something different than what Wells has done before, it is also in the conclusion that Moon finally acquires his distinctiveness from all her previous male protagonists.
In contrast, it is in the writing that The Serpent Sea suffers in comparison to The Cloud Roads and those previous books. The storytelling here is rarely less than straightforward, but after the first volume it feels like something is missing. Biological elements aren't entirely absent, but they matter less in this story. Without an equivalent thematic element to give connective tissue, the story can resemble merely a sequence of vaguely related scenes. The Serpent Sea is just not a book that generates a strong impression in the mind, at least not for most of its length. And occasionally it reads as rather rushed. The first book was never as scattered as this paragraph from Sea, which starts talking about lights of habitation in domed towers, moves on to other topics, and then repeats itself about the domed towers and their lighting:
The city was mostly composed of towers . . . There were big ones, octagonal with domed roofs, and smaller round ones. Light shone sporadically from windows and on the plazas and bridges. There were glass and metal lamps, on poles or hanging from chains, filled with a vapor that gave off a white illumination. There were no streets, just stairways and walkways, wreathed in mist. Some of the towers were topped with elaborate structures, domed roofs, smaller turrets, and colonnades with wide terraces overlooking the city. Some were brightly lit and occupied. (p. 135)
Those sorts of miscues are not the norm in the book, but they're present. Hopefully they represent an isolated dip, not a sign that an ambitious series publishing schedule is going to diminish a writer who, paragraph by paragraph, had so often before been a pleasure to read.
It must also be said that The Serpent Sea isn't a game changer. Its secondary characters are still sketches, and the patterns of thought and dialogue still have the same disconnected, overly modern feel. Moon in one case acts bemused by the pseudo-modern mores of one species he encounters—a brother who is at pains to make clear to Moon that his sister is not sexually available—but displays similar feelings himself when confronted by the idea that Jade might take other lovers (pp. 183, 116). And while I appreciated the genderbending elements of the book's romance, I wished Wells had given us more of a sense of what the physical dominance of female Raksura meant in other areas of their society. What the book is, no more and no less, is the completion of the story arc began in The Cloud Roads, the story of Moon finally finding a home. It seems content to do that, to be that, while touching only lightly on the numerous other issues and questions raised by the first book. In this it feels representative of the best and worst of series fiction. It offers a measured amount of satisfaction, of progression and expansion, without even the hint of an attempt to satiate. It creates, as all series do, something of a genre in itself, with its own internal language, its own patterns of concern, its own loci of expected novelty. The touches on the larger issues serve to reassure that Wells is aware of these loci and their untapped potential. And this gives continued hope for future volumes, for the series overall.
Hope is a good way to end discussion of The Serpent Sea: I ended the book where I began, hopeful for what comes next. To be sure, it is a tale that feels like a success largely in context of the expectations set by the first book, and by Wells's past work. But if The Serpent Sea doesn't necessarily go down all the avenues I had hoped it might, it also doesn't foreclose any avenues. And better, it goes down avenues I didn't expect. For all the new material in the first book, it is this second one that feels more truly novel, that starts to handle its material as possibilities to be realized rather than exotic window dressing. More than that, it retroactively enriches the first book; and not only by throwing its strengths into sharper relief, but also by bolstering several of its shortcomings. It is The Serpent Sea that made me—now a year later—want to open the covers of The Cloud Roads again, rediscover what was there, and write about it.
Matt Denault has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston. Depending on when you are reading this, he either has or had a blog called Lingua Fantastika.