One by one, a crowd drew close in the dreary, oncoming night around the lights from a single carousel, burning gold. No one, children or adults, rode the platform, but many stood about, watching as a world of sleepers spun around and around. Horses, tigers, dragons, and giant birds. Jeweled fur and feathers and scales glimmering against the dark.
I observed from somewhere in the middle of the crowd, ignorant of the motive behind this gathering. Drizzling rain dripped down my temples and my breath puffed in the cold. Words did not pass between those around me. Eavesdropping a useless effort.
One by one, the sleeping animals opened their eyes. As well, the gloom deepened, erasing the crowd, magnifying the bright majesty radiating from the carousel creatures. They stretched and shook, snorted and stamped, slowly crawled off the platform as it ground to a halt.
We held still, held our breaths, as the animals crept among us, through our ranks. A dragon the height of my hips slunk close by me. Close enough that I reached out to brush its scales with my fingertips. Light trailed off the dragon like cobwebs, glittering around my fingernails. Yet I had touched mere plastic, its scales smooth and painted.
One by one, the carousel bulbs above us burned out, snuffed like torches. Faster and faster, plunging us into darkness, until none remained. Animated artificial animals, radiating light that faded by the moment, slipped past the last of the crowd and out into the world.
Some energy or electricity or just the reviving quality of light had woken these sleepers. Yet they had not transformed into true animals. I wondered what machination could inject in them this half life, what endless ideal called them away.
One by one, the creatures vanished, swallowed by the seductive night.
By way of a leaf-strewn country path, I accompanied Fall home. At least, we had begun as companions traveling the same way. But now he sagged against me and I hauled him along as best I could. Golden days had turned sharp and brittle, crunchy leaves growing damp and moldy underfoot. Low gray clouds raced overhead.
“I waited too long,” he muttered, again and again. His glorious crown of golden leaves, sheaves of wheat, rosy apples, orange gourds, and brittle twigs lay somewhere far behind. Discarded when the weight grew too heavy. His cheeks sunken. His gaze hollow, distant.
We arrived at a house nestled on a rise between trees whose leaves only just clung to their branches. Frost glittered along window sills and bloomed in bursts over glass panes. At the foot of the stairs, Fall waved me off and straightened up, taking the stone stairs one labored step at a time.
A shuffle happened just within the doorway as he collapsed inside and a woman exited. She paused on the front step, breathing in a huge breath, the frost abandoning the house to cling to her lashes and her fingertips. The door swung shut with a blast of frigid air.
I wrapped my arms around myself at the sudden chill. When she caught sight of me, Winter smiled in a hungry way, revealing gleaming, sharp teeth.
As she descended the steps, I backed away to let her pass. She headed back the way I had come, a blanket of frost spreading over the ground at her feet. In her absence, on the window sills of the house, pink blossoms began to bloom, readying for the emergence of spring.
Pulling my coat from my pack with shivering hands, I decided not to accompany Winter home when the time came.
Martha Wells, of 2018-2019 Murderbot fame, weaves a tale of social complexity in The Cloud Roads. Following Moon, an orphan Raksuran, the narrative details his experiences of finding a colony at last and attempting to integrate through politics and social expectations he knows nothing about. With an outsider’s perspective, he begins to codify the deteriorate and extinction which the colony faces as he uncovers the mystery of the enemy that seems to have pursued him to his new home. I loved the depictions of social complexity, of divergent relationship roles, and the acceptance of individuals with difficult behaviors as just part of colony life.
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 beginning of The Cloud Roads gives little indication of the surprises, twists, and turns in store for Moon. He must learn to go from lost and alone to part of a community of his own people that he does not understand at all. At the same time, enemies of the Raksura come bearing down on his newfound colony in his wake, awakening suspicions in all and demanding action from the most powerful down to the most diminutive members of the colony. Success rides on the ability of everyone to work together, as well as both a sundering and an embracing of traditions.
I couldn’t agree more. Moon spends his time arguing with others of the Indigo Cloud Court with whom he wants to join up, while the entire colony endures a crisis of potential extinction. All of them argue back, a whole mess of distinct, intriguing characters driving the plot forward with both actions and opinions.
As someone walking around with a low level of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, I enjoyed this representation of socializing. The freedom to express one’s opinion or have a moody moment and not get immediately ejected from the social circle had me wishing I could curl up in a Raksuran nest with a few cuddly bat-lizard companions.
The Cloud Roads features a slew of complex characters, all bound together by one colony or an ancient animosity. Throughout the depiction of character relations, Wells demonstrates a powerful ability to represent diversity, polyamorous relationships, opposing world views, and social structures.
Most of all, I loved the depiction of strength and submission in both females and males of the colony, most revealed in the love triangle between Moon, the sister queen Jade, and Charm. Moon switches between domination and submission, while Jade embodies all power, all strength. Charm struggles with his identity of changing from one caste to another out of nowhere and acts more soft around Moon.
An outsider’s perspective. With his ignorance from growing up as an orphan outside of a Raksuran court, Moon brings fresh eyes to the situation facing Indigo Cloud Court as the colony deteriorates with no explanation. While he becomes embroiled in Raksuran politics, their struggles, and his place among them, through empathy and a desire to understand others, he begins to recognize the enemies they face as more than just brutes bent on Raksuran destruction.
While the beginning ofThe Cloud Roads hinted not at all about the direction the narrative would take, by the end, the events that unfold seem inevitable. As if this story could have ended no other way. A testament to Wells’s skill.
Thunder sounded as a herd of horses broke from a stand of trees, hooves drumming on winter dead grass as they passed. One, the color of butter with black tail and legs, paused beside me, dancing and snorting.
“A mountain lion follows,” the horse said. “Climb on, before it catches you!”
A rustle in the trees. There, between the distant trunks, the tawny hide of a cougar flicked from sunlight to shadow. I turned away, saying, “I’m better at running than riding, thanks.”
The horse leapt in front of me, ears back. “You’re too slow on those two legs. Now hurry up!”
I took a breath, knowing the horse was right, and clambered aboard, nearly slipping several times. A low growl, followed by a frustrated roar and the thump of huge paws. “C’mon, c’mon!” I hissed.
Then I was upright and we were away, wind whistling across my ears. Though my fingers gripped rough mane, I flopped around on the horse’s back like a sack of potatoes. Racing steps of the big cat right behind us had me leaning low over the horse’s neck, holding on for my life. The scent of sweat and fear rose from its skin, adding to my own terror. I couldn’t afford to fall now.
At some point, the sounds of pursuit fell away. Behind us, the big cat stood watching us escape, tail twitching. When at last the horse stopped, I slid down its side onto numb feet, then fell over on my butt.
Looking up at the horse above me, I said, “Thanks for your help, but I hope I never have to do that again.”
The horse shook itself out. “Perhaps next time will be under safer circumstances.” It raised its head, ears pricked toward the danger we’d left behind. “Hopefully, anyway.”
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose. (less)
Another library find, Uprooted caught my eye as I prowled the shelves. I was coming down with a cold and needed something to keep me company in the long, gross days ahead. Though I had read no Naomi Novik offerings to this point, I knew her name, and the first page of Uprootedintrigued me.
Concerning plot, Uprooted takes its time. Or rather, it covers a lot of ground over the course of the story. From a wizard’s tower to a cursed forest, a trip to a distant capital and back, rescue and battle, and a final confrontation in the heart of the Wood.
The fight scenes present vividly the fear and desperation of battle, all the ways things can go wrong, ending in loss of life. Exploration of the magic and new understandings of old ways of thinking show up as expressive imagery. The world itself appears both vast and detailed.
Many of the elements I loved in Tamora Pierce’s series The Immortals showed up in Uprooted. The wild magic element of Agniezka’s powers. The world weary mage in Sarkan. Her complete disinterest in keeping herself tidy, with no level of ridicule or criticism capable of changing that. Her chaos versus his orderliness, and the eventual recognition from both the value of the other’s method, the importance of putting the two together instead of keeping them apart. I found the two vivid and dynamic, changing and growing over the course of the story, ultimately becoming equals.
Stick with your guns. In Uprooted, Agniezka gets thrown into unfamiliar situation after unfamiliar situation, just as she thinks she knows what she’s about. Each time, her lack of understanding gets her into trouble as she tries to fit into her surroundings and play by the rules.
Only when she recognizes that the rules are garbage and that she must do things her way does she begin to stand a chance at getting what she needs.
Possibly my favorite part of Uprooted, the ending. Agniezka ultimately becomes independent, a powerful yet compassionate witch, sharing empathy with her enemy and working hard to set the lingering after-effects of a centuries-long war to rights. She chases after no one’s approval but her own, so that in the end, she is enough for herself.
As mentioned, a lot happens in the plot of Uprooted. Several times, the story appears to be ending, only for another movement to begin. I had no problem with more to read, but getting catfished like that became a little wearying.
Sweet, floral perfume hung on the stale air of a forgotten warehouse. Wafting among corroded pipes, which wove their way along a high ceiling and around long, dusty windows. Drifting through the trash and dead leaves scattered across a concrete floor. Reflecting off once-white walls and old, broken furniture.
I was following a trail of flowers.
Each blossom sprang from the concrete as if grown from dirt – fresh, colorful, trembling with life. The trail meandered this way and that, seeming to follow the least messy path through the warehouse. Once, it stopped at the windows, leaving a large cluster of plants there. A circle rubbed clean of muck showed where hands had wiped away the dirt for a clear view outside.
I did not bother looking out myself. This city, I knew, only decayed.
At the farthest end of the warehouse, a curious thing hung from above. A bower of flowers, twisted around themselves and ballooning upward to the ceiling, where strong roots dug into cracks in the plaster. This bower reached almost to the floor, where a gaunt woman stood weaving more blooms in among the rest. A carpet of blossoms festooned the floor around her. The trail ended here.
Candlelight illuminated my approach, evidencing my following of her, yet she did not stop her work. The plants around the hem of her dress seemed to grow without pause.
When I had come close, I asked, “Who are you?”
She drew another cluster of flowers from the floor to the bower in her hands. “Nobody,” she replied.
Groaning sounded from above and I tipped my gaze upward. The roots along the ceiling spread even farther. “And what are you doing here?”
A small, bitter smile. “Nothing. Just trying to make a small change.”
Brushed with soft pink hues in the fading evening light, full white dandelion heads stretched away from either side of a dirt path. Evidence of a wishing festival lay scattered all around me – broken, bald stalks discarded in the dirt. On still air rode the scent of sap and cut grass, warning other plants of the danger of being plucked.
More than half of the dandelion field lay in ruin. Stalks crunched beneath my shoes as I made my way to the first line of puffs still sanding. Rumors said this particular field imparted more potent wishes than most, but only on one day of the year. Today. I knelt and took a living stalk in hand. I had until the suns fell bellow the horizon to make my wish.
A little burst of feathery seeds floated past my face. Someone’s earlier wish. I followed their progress into the smokey blue evening, away until I could see them no longer. Sun rays glanced through the head of the dandelion I held poised to pick, illuminating the clinging seeds like the hundred tiny things I wanted. Yet how they clung, not quite ready to go or else they would have already gone. In what way had I earned a say in that timing?
As the suns slipped away, I sighed and released the dandelion, laying back on the bed of destroyed plants. Better these seeds flew off in their own time and not in mine.
Just peculiar enough to look like an accident, a white truck hulked beneath a tree in bloom. The pale pollen and petals piled upon its windshield, however, revealed that it had huddled below the heavy branches for a long time. Nighttime crouched like a presence between the tree trunk and the car door.
A rustling sent my heart skittering. No breeze had brushed the branches, yet somehow the darkness moved. I stood before the car, now regretting my curiosity to investigate. My feet felt rooted to the grassy ground. An unusual scent of burning carburetor hung in the still air.
Two things happened at once. A massive gust of wind rose, sending me stumbling toward that darkened gap with the force of a pair of hands. From out below the tree rushed a person, eyes wide, clothes bedraggled, face bloodied. I could pick out no more details before they slammed into me, shoving me against the wind until at last it dropped, no longer pushing me from behind.
The person’s voice quivered as they clung to me. “Don’t go in there,” they said. Then they released me and scrambled off into the night.
A moment of quiet. Then a screech of rending metal tore through the air. The truck quivered. Buckled. Dragging deeper beneath the tree. I stumbled back, but couldn’t turn away. Crunching like chewing sounded as the truck lurched backward, crushing smaller and smaller until none of it was left.
Leaves shivered as the tree seemed to smile, white blooms like blunt teeth. Low, rumbling laughter. Nearly friendly, but not quite.
Light bloomed behind me in a passage I had already cleared, so bright as to drown out the glow of my flashlight. Looking back, I had to hold up a hand to shield my eyes. I could see nothing but the sandstone walls of the cavern.
“Are you lost?” a voice asked. It echoed around the chamber ahead as well as behind, surrounding me.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Can you point that elsewhere?”
The light shifted away, its absence revealing a man holding a staff tipped with a glowing crystal. Shirtless and barefoot. A lean, hungry look in his narrow eyes.
“Where are you going?” the stranger asked. “I can guide you.”
“Have you been following me?” I asked. “You weren’t there when I passed through just now.”
“I live in these caves,” he replied. His shadow loomed huge on the wall between us. “I guide the lost.”
Noting that he had failed to answer my question, I said, “I wouldn’t take up your time. If you could just point me toward the way out…”
The man’s mouth pressed into a thin line. He paused so long I wondered if he would even respond. Then, arm raised toward the passage I had been following already, he said, “Take a left at the first fork.” With that, he dimmed the crystal, melting away down another passage. As he did, his fading shadow shifted to look just a little like a jackal.
After waiting a moment to ensure the man wouldn’t return, I pressed on. At the first fork, I took a right, following the directions of a map I had acquired for this trip. It wasn’t long before I reached the exit. Once out, I added a note to the map’s corner. ‘Offering of guidance not to be trusted.’
As I made to step off the sidewalk of a sunny city, a car with
dark windows pulled to a stop right in front of me. I scurried back up onto the
walk, frowning at having my way forward blocked. But as I made to step around
the intruding car, I peered within and paused, realizing the windows were not
just dark. The inside was brimming with plants. Green tendrils pressed against
the passenger side window. I could not see the driver.
The window slid down. Some tendrils popped free and I jerked
back to avoid the leafy onslaught. From within the verdant depths, a voice
said, “A little help?”
“What’s wrong with your side?” I asked the wall of leaves.
“It’s jammed,” he replied. “Pull me out!”
I popped the handle and, keeping a firm grip on the jamb, I
shoved my entire arm into the thicket. Cool leaves and twigs tickled me, then
my fingers brushed against warm skin. We clasped at the wrist and, bracing my
feet on the sidewalk, I hauled a man out. Vines wrapped around his torso and
clung to his ankles, but they tore free as he slithered from the car and lay
sprawled on the sidewalk.
With a raised eyebrow, I regarded one tendril inching its way out
the door. “Looks like you brought the forest back with you.”
“You know how they say,” the man panted, “leave nothing but
footprints, take nothing but memories?”
He climbed to his feet and brought his face close to mine. “They
weren’t kidding.” Making a ‘forget it’ gesture at the shrubby car, he stumbled
Squinting at the escaping tendril, I poked it back up into the car. Then I shut the door on the forest within and went to call a tow truck.