Cloudbound is Fran Wilde’s 2016 sequel to her debut novel Updraft, and if its predecessor was a mixed bag whose balance tipped toward the positive, albeit not as much as one would wish, Cloudbound doesn’t fare quite so successfully, with the needle pointing slightly more toward the negative. Thanks to a continuingly inventive world-building and a somewhat predictable but still intriguing ending, I’ll forge forward to book three, Horizon, but it’s a more grudging decision than I’d prefer.
Warning: there will be inevitable spoilers for book one, beginning with the next paragraph! I’m also going to assume you’ve read book one (you really need to have done so), so I won’t bother explaining what one should already know about setting and characters.
Wilde picks up her story shortly after the events of Updraft, following the societal revolution sparked by Kirit and others, marked most concretely by the breaking of the Spire and the Singers’ power. Now, months later, people are suspicious and paranoid, towers are setting themselves against one another, and riots are breaking out in the markets. The power vacuum created by the fall of the Singers has been filled by a council of tower representatives, with one in particular, Doran, vying to be “the” power. Doran believes strength is what is needed now to bind the society together, and the surviving Singers make an excellent scapegoat both for past troubles and as a current enemy to unify the towers. When another “Conclave” (sacrifice”) is deemed necessary, the Singers are deemed the perfect victims/”volunteers.”
Wilde chooses to show us this via a switch in first-person POV from Kirit in Updraft to her friend Nat in Cloudbound. Nat, as a young councilman, sees Doran as his mentor, and for the first quarter or third of the book he’s all in with Doran’s plans, despite his lifelong friendship with Kirit and the conflict his support of Doran engenders between him and her. Soon, though, in an echo of Kirit’s experiences in book one, Nat learns that all is not as it appears, and he begins to questions his loyalty to Doran and the council. Eventually all-out conflict ensues, with winged battles, secret plots, hidden weapons, ambushes, hostage taking, and more, all set against the backdrop of a world whose dimensions are gradually expanded/revealed.
Fans of Updraft may find the POV shift in Cloudbound jarring or unwelcome. Personally, I’m glad Wilde went this route. One of my issues with the first book was the ease with which Kirit mastered various skills and her all-too-evident “special” nature. Nat, on the other hand, is nearly the polar opposite. He’s wrong at least as often as he’s right, if not more; his results seldom achieve their goals, either due to poor decision-making on his part or external events; and he’s far less stubborn/confident/brash. In many ways he’s a more complex, more self-aware character, as for example when he is willing to examine his own desire for power and what that means.
Along with the smart move to Nat as narrator, Wilde’s world-building, at least in its base configuration, remains inventive. Having spent book one amidst the tower tops, we learn more about what lies in the clouds here, and even, by the very end of Cloudbound, what lies beneath the clouds. The revelation isn’t particularly surprising, and I had some issues with its execution, but in concept it’s a wild ride of imagination and leaves the reader eager to see where she takes it in the third book.
Finally, the prose’s clarity and fluidity, along with the occasional lyrical aspect, remain strengths, as does the presentation of the society’s technology, particularly the mechanical nature of flight.
Unfortunately, as noted in the introduction, these strengths were balanced out, or even outweighed by the aspects of Cloudbound that didn’t work for me. While I’m a fan of the shift to Nat as the new narrator for the reasons listed above, his shift in allegiance comes a bit too quickly and easily for me, and then becomes a bit confusingly muddled. “Muddled” is a good word as well for the politics of the book, which are never quite clear. The power struggle is clear, as are those vying for power, but that’s about it. How the power works, why they have support, why they continue to have support after particular events, what they hope to achieve in any specific form; none of this was all that evident to me. I wrote “why” or “doesn’t make sense,” a good half-dozen or more times in my margin notes. This mightn’t have been a big deal had the politics been backdrop material, but it is actually central to the storyline, and the best way I can think to describe it is just a big vague mess.
[caption id=”” align=”alignright” /> Book 3
Vague also describes the sense of geography and setting, which was a detriment to feeling fully entrenched in the book’s action/world. With so much plotting and fighting (a bit too much of both for me), logistics needed to be much more clearly, vividly concrete. This probably contributed to my sense that the book was overlong by a good amount, with the plot bogging down in several points, feeling a bit repetitive in others. As well, several scenes just felt unnecessary, moving neither plot nor character along. And while I did like what Wilde attempted in the last section, as mentioned the execution wasn’t strong enough for me, though I won’t go into details so as to avoid spoilers.
The ratio of good to not-so-good is close; Cloudbound’s certainly not a bad book by any stretch, and the fact that its predecessor was somewhat stronger helped convince me to continue, as did the expectation of that ending revelation. But I did have to (mildly) push myself to finish several times, and grew increasingly frustrated by muddled motivations/actions or dialog/action that just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. To be honest, had it not been a review book, I’m not wholly sure I would have finished it. But I did, and I’m about to move on to book three with a recommendation on the BONE UNIVERSE series as a whole hanging in the balance.