The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells

I was having such a good time reading The Cloud Reads that I was voicing aloud my need for The Serpent Sea before I was finished. I asked, and the Husband answered by gifting me with a copy on my birthday. You could read this book before the first, but I’d recommend you don’t because there’s character growth that’s more rewarding when the books are read in order.

My review of book 1, The Cloud Roads can be found here:

**** This review may contain spoilers for the first book!!  ****

The Serpent Sea
Martha Wells

The Premise: Finally orphan Moon has found a place for himself in the Raksura colony of Indigo Cloud. He’s still adjusting to being a Consort and all that entails, but in the meantime, the Indigo Cloud court is moving. The influence of the Fell has reduced their numbers and poisoned their home, and now Indigo Cloud is returning to the great tree that they left, generations ago. Unfortunately, when the colony arrives at their tree, they discover that a vital part of it has been recently stolen: the seed at its heart. Without it, the tree will die and Indigo Cloud would be left homeless and vulnerable. The colony needs to find the stolen piece before the damage is irreversible.

My Thoughts: The Serpent Sea begins almost where The Cloud Roads left off: with Raksura of Indigo Cloud traveling to their ancestral home via flying boat. It’s been a long journey and Moon and the rest are eager to finally be at their destination, but when they land, the great tree doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not long before they discover the reason why. Someone has come into the tree and stolen the seed at its heart. Of course this now puts Indigo Cloud back into peril again — without a home, they’re vulnerable. The other nearby Raksura colonies may accept their return to their tree, but they wouldn’t necessarily tolerate Indigo Cloud settling in other territory.

As with The Cloud Roads, I loved the fantastic landscapes of The Serpent Sea, especially when it came to the places that the people of the Three Worlds lived. Every one seemed more amazing than the last. It really felt like anything goes here with building places to live. It begins with the colony’s new home amongst the mountain-trees, with branches that interweave to create platforms for smaller trees to grow:

“It grew darker, the green-tinted sunlight muted as clouds closed in high above the treetops. The drizzle turned into a light rain that pattered on the deck. The platforms of the suspended forest grew wider and more extensive.  Many of them overlapped, or were connected by broad branches, with ponds or streams. Waterfalls fell from holes in some of the mountain-sized trees. Moon wondered if the water was drawn up from the forest floor through the roots. It was like a while multi-layered second forest hanging between the tree canopy and the ground, somewhere far below.”

The quest for the seed leads them to other settlements, including the one shown on the cover — a city built on a giant water-monster (!!!) that swims in a large body of water named the Serpent Sea. These are great settings but there is some thought behind them: why people chose to live in these places, and how it affects them are considerations that aren’t omitted from the story. As you’d expect there are also new creatures introduced as the Raksura travel to find the seed for their tree, but there’s no revisit from races encountered in the last book. This may be to underscore how far the colony has traveled, or how isolated populations become from one another because of the difficulty of travel.

I was fascinated as usual by the variety and differences in cultures, but this story doesn’t forget the Raksura themselves. I continue to enjoy how Raksura society is conveyed through Moon’s experiences.
At this point Moon is no longer the newcomer and his actions have granted him some respect. When the colony decides to search for the missing seed, he’s part of those plans, but he’s still settling into his new role as a Consort and he’s not always confident in that role. In the meantime there’s still some tension between the queens, Pearl and Jade. These types of adjustments don’t happen overnight, and The Serpent Sea reflects that.

There’s an implied system of hierarchy based on birth and an internal ranking system and it is fun to see where certain Raksura placed. I loved that this was a society where women were leaders, and queens are expected to be more aggressive than consorts. There’s a scene in particular (towards the end of the book), that illustrates this point and had me cheering. There are some developments that shed light on the history of Indigo Cloud as well as some eye-opening interactions with other Raksura.  I also enjoyed learning a little more about the magical abilities of the mentors. I would love to learn more, and I hope the unique situation that Chime is in (he’s the only Raksura known to have changed from a mentor into a warrior) gets more attention in the next book.

Most of my reaction to The Serpent Sea is positive, but I had one (probably unfair) issue with it. The Serpent Sea is basically a quest story. The goal from the beginning is clear: Indigo Cloud Court wants a home and to have one they must have their seed. Because of this, to me, the plot felt a lot simpler than The Cloud Roads. Since Moon’s past and Indigo Cloud Court’s problems with the Fell have been cleared up, the focus is now on Indigo Cloud Court resettling. The quest for the seed has it’s complications and there are bumps along the way, but I didn’t feel as though there was as much that was unexpected. I feel like I’m being a tough critic with that that reaction though. In other ways, The Serpent Sea shines. It delivers just as rich world building and gripping action as the first book did, and it continues Moon’s personal journey in a believable way.

Overall: I think part of me compares this with the first installment and wants something more complex than a quest story, but when I put that quibble (which I feel very few people would share) aside, The Serpent Seas is very enjoyable and shows the same imagination (the world building in these books is amazing) as the previous book. This is well-written fantasy and has an incredibly creative, visual story-telling style.

I will be reading the third book, The Siren Depths, which is out in December and has artwork, but no cover yet.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other Reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 8 (excellent)

P.S. While reading this I came across this artwork of a harpy by Sandara on deviantart which I thought could also work as a Raksura. Pretty, no?

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

After a spat of straight contemporary reads this year, I finally started looking at my TBR for a nice fantasy and my eye landed on The Cloud Roads, a book I picked up at LunaCon. This book has been on my radar after a joint review at The Book Smugglers, but Kristen putting it on her favorites list sealed it. I think Kristen has great taste in fantasy, and have resolved to listen to her when she recommends something.

The Cloud Roads
Martha Wells

The Premise: Moon is a orphan who doesn’t know exactly what he is. The sole survivor of the massacre of his mother and young siblings, Moon has wandered among the groundlings, blending in with his own earth-bound form, for much of his life. When no one is looking, he shape-shifts into a scaled, winged creature with claws, frills around his head, and a long tail. Unfortunately, once shifted, he has more than a passing similarity to the Fell, a reviled, sociopathic race with no purpose than to conquering and decimating cities, leaching all resources, and moving on to restart the cycle elsewhere. Moon is not a Fell, but he looks like one, and if his secret form is discovered, the consequences could be dire. And then Moon meets another shape-shifter just like him, who wants to take Moon back to his colony. Moon accepts the offer, if only to find out more about his race, but this stranger has more than altruistic motives for bringing Moon to the others. Moon doesn’t know just how crucial he is to the survival of this colony, nor is it certain he would he have come if he’d known of its recent upheavals.

My Thoughts: The lost orphan making his way in the world. It’s a common trope in the fantasy genre, but ever since I read The Belgariad I’ve loved it. There’s something about the search for identity and the possibilities within the Fantasy landscape that I adore. Add this to another trope I have a thing for, which is discovering new cultures through a character’s eyes, and you’ve got me eagerly absorbing the story of Moon finding his people.

The Cloud Roads establishes Moon’s isolated and temporary lifestyle early on. Typically Moon spends his day hunting alone, then comes home to the hut and the two women he shares it with (assigned to him by the Cordan camp). Sometimes, he sneaks out of the camp at night and assumes his other form. Always, this is in secret:

“Moon had been very young when his mother and siblings had been killed, and she had never told him where they had come from. For a long time he had searched sky-islands looking for some trace of his own people. The islands flew; it stood to reason that the inhabitants might be shifters who could fly. But he had never found anything, and now he just explored because it gave him something to do.
When Moon had first joined the Cordans, he hadn’t thought of staying this long. He had lived with other people he had liked–most recently the Jandin, who had lived in cliff caves above a waterfall, and the Hassi, with their wooden city high in the air atop a thick mat of link-trees–but something always happened. The Fell came or someone got suspicious of him and he had to move on.”

The opening sentence of The Cloud Roads warns us that things are to change for Moon (“Moon had been thrown out of a lot of groundling settlements and camps, but he hadn’t expected it from the Cordans.”), and it soon does. Things happen very quickly, and suddenly Moon is on a journey with Stone, an older shapeshifter. Stone is a Raksura, and so is Moon. Stone wants Moon to come to his colony, Indigo Cloud Court, and Moon agrees, both because Moon has no where else to go, and because he has a burning desire to learn what he is. At the colony, Moon meets the Raksura, a race of shapeshifters with different attributes — some that can shift to winged shape (the Aeriat class) which are the warriors and royals, and others that only have a ground form (the Arbora) which are hunters, mentors, soldiers and teachers. It’s a hive-type society where everyone has their role and place in the overall hierarchy, and the queens are its rulers. Moon is an awkward outsider at first, but he was born a consort, with all the privileges and expectations that that brings. He just has to figure out how to be one. As a solitary, he’s grown up less sheltered and pampered than he normally would be.

There is enough from Stone’s not-being-quite-forthcoming to make a guess where the story would go, but I was never exactly right. Just when I thought I knew what would happen, something else would. The Cloud Roads had a very dynamic plot — new problems were always being thrown into the mix and Moon and the other Raksura spend a lot of time having to react to the latest fire, but at the same time, this was done quite smoothly. I never felt like anything was forced, and Moon’s adjustment to everything had just as much page-time as the threats to Indigo Cloud Court. There is plenty of time for Moon to make both friends and enemies among the Raksura and to begin to understand their politics and culture. Meanwhile, there are also threats outside the colony that need to be dealt with. The outside enemies are your typical shadowy bad guys (although there were suggestions of their viewpoints, they weren’t delved into), but I was okay with this because Moon’s fledgling relationship with the other Raksura felt like the primary focus.

There are also several races in The Cloud Roads world. None are human, although a couple are human-like. There are lizard-like people, snail-like people, tusked people, tentacle-faced people, and opalescent people. There’s the feeling that there are many more. This is a big world and Moon and the Raksura don’t know all that is in it. When Moon and others venture out, they are journeys to places they haven’t been to before, so there’s always an element of wonder and discovery. And it’s quite lovely: the fantastic vistas and architectural marvels captures the romantic notions of fantasy. I particularly liked how the artifacts of past civilizations dotting the landscape added a sense of lost history to the world building.

Overall: A hive-like society, an orphan in search of his people, and a world populated by strange races, none of them human. The Cloud Roads is recognizable fantasy, but with a fresh spin. I really enjoyed the mix of comfort and creativity as well as the imaginative world building, but I was won over by Moon’s personal struggles. I felt empathy for his initial loneliness and culture shock, and I wanted to see him thrive in his new place. I recommend this for traditional fantasy fans who like feel-good adventure and maybe a drop of romance.

I already started reading the sequel, The Serpent Sea, and will probably also buy the third book of this trilogy, The Siren Depths, when it comes out in December this year.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Fantasy book cafe – 8/10
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Thea) and 8 (Ana)
Calico Reaction – 7 (A good read)
Starmetal Oak Reviews – 8 (out of 10)