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“The Siren Depths” by Martha Wells

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In the third installment of Martha Wells’s Books of the Raksura series, Moon finds himself with exactly the opposite problem from what he’s used to. As he finally starts to settle into his home at Indigo Cloud, he discovers that another group of Raksura has taken an interest in him—and because of Raksura society’s complex rules, they may be able to force him to take up residence with them instead. Combined with gradually emerging hints about the reasons behind the Fell’s repeated attacks on Raksura settlements, this makes for a tense and dramatic story.

Although Moon is an adult, the Raksura series is in some ways a coming-of-age story, since Moon has to learn how to build relationships with others and find his place in Raksura society. This theme continues with the conflict between the different Raksura courts that want to “claim” Moon. Just as he’s beginning to feel like he might be able to build a stable life, and that he’s getting a handle on the rules by which their civilization operates, everything gets upended again. And he finds himself in the unenviable position of having to mediate between different groups with the right to call themselves his family, and who don’t always get along all that well. (Imagine one of those awkward Thanksgivings where your relatives have too much wine and start arguing about politics, but with more shape-shifting and fang-baring.)

We also get significant development on a major plot arc of the series: the Fell attacks on various civilizations, and in particular their animosity towards the Raksura. This is the source of much of the story’s action, but it’s also intimately tied to the backgrounds of the characters, especially Moon.

Wells continues the worldbuilding that makes the Three Worlds such a delight. We see not only an older and more established Raksura court, but also yet another new (to us) species. As usual, they’re given a unique culture that feels real, with its own architecture, clothing styles, and social norms. The Raksura stories, with their plethora of civilizations, evokes the same kind of “sensawunda” as the best sci-fi, despite being confined to (mostly) a single continent on a single planet.

A couple of major plot threads get resolved in this book, but there are still mysteries and the potential for further developments. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, as Moon’s story continues to be a rewarding one.

“The Serpent Sea” by Martha Wells

In The Cloud Roads, the first book of Martha Wells’s Books of the Raksura series, Moon is searching for a community where he can live without fear of being kicked out when his shapechanging abilities are discovered. As The Serpent Sea opens, he’s beginning to find his place in the Raksura court of Indigo Cloud. But while he now has what one might call a spiritual home, his physical home—and that of the whole court—is in a more precarious position. The Raksura live inside trees that are magically shaped and grown to accommodate them. The artifact that permits this alteration, known as a seed, has been stolen, and if it isn’t returned, their tree will die.

The Cloud Roads gave the sense of taking place in a very large world, but The Serpent Sea expands the world even further. The search for the seed brings the main characters to the coast, and we see communities that live on islands or across the sea. We also catch a few glimpses of “waterlings”—beings who live in the water. One of the things I loved about the first book was the wide variety of species and cultures, so being introduced to more in this new installment made me happy. However, it makes me wonder how much room is left to introduce new people in the remaining three books of the series.

The Serpent Sea also continues the story of Moon’s personal growth. Having joined the Indigo Cloud Court as Jade’s consort, he now has to adjust to the position of leadership that comes with that. I particularly liked the nuanced portrayal of his previous status as a wanderer: it makes it harder for him to integrate into the court but gives him a broader knowledge of other cultures that comes in handy when the Raksura need to interact with them. We also see the ongoing tension between Jade and Pearl’s factions of the court, as well as further development of Chime’s mysterious transition from mentor to warrior.

As usual, some of the imagery here is gorgeous. Majestic trees big enough to house dozens of people, steampunk-ish ships, and at least one grand surprise I won’t spoil all play a role here. All of this leaves me looking forward to the next installment.

“The Cloud Roads” by Martha Wells

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Martha Wells has received a lot of attention lately for her Murderbot sci-fi series but has also written some notable works of fantasy. The Cloud Roads, written in 2011, is the first in a five-book series focusing on the Raksura, a reptilian species in a world inhabited by a wide variety of sapients.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Books of the Raksura series is the complete absence of humans. Some species look reasonably human-like. For example, the islanders from whom the Raksura seek to hire an airship are hominids with gold-tinted skin and eyes (I imagined them looking a bit like the Sovereign from Guardians of the Galaxy). But we also see an insectoid species and are told of merfolk-like peoples living in the ocean. And then there are the Raksura themselves—shapeshifting beings with scales and prehensile tails, some of whom are capable of flight.

There’s also a lot of gorgeous imagery in the book: islands that float in midair, a city built atop a giant revolving wheel, sprawling landscapes. The vivid descriptions help to make the setting feel more like a living, complete world.

When the story first begins, the main character, Moon, doesn’t even know what species he is. He remembers his mother and siblings but doesn’t know why they lived apart from a community of people like themselves. The mystery of his origins is only partly solved in The Cloud Roads, and while he helps his newfound friends to defeat a powerful enemy, a larger threat still looms. I’m interested to explore the setting and these plot threads further in the rest of the series.