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How Well Does The Cloud Roads Fit as Sword and Sorcery?

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 | Posted by marthawells

cloud roadsI’ve always had a problem with genre categories.

What I’ve seen over the years is that when you try to define a category in order to make it easier for readers to find the kind of books they like, publishers begin to tailor their marketing to that definition. Then people begin to write to that definition. The definition becomes increasingly narrow, and it makes stories that don’t fit that definition in every respect harder to sell.

When you do sell a book that doesn’t fit, you occasionally get a reader email demanding to know why something sold as a fantasy doesn’t have a bearded white guy with a sword as the main character, because the definition is now so narrow that your book (and a lot of others) has been squeezed out of it.

When I wrote The Cloud Roads, the first of the Books of the Raksura, I still felt it fell mostly under the category of sword and sorcery, despite there not being any swords, and the sorcery being internal and intrinsic to the characters. The books I read that I thought of as sword and sorcery usually had one (or two) loner characters, bumming along in a fantasy landscape as mercenaries, looking for treasure or opportunities to make a living. They had been outlaws in the past, or were fleeing accusations of something, or a past of slavery or powerlessness or something in their lives that they had to hide.

In The Cloud Roads, Moon was profoundly alone, even when he was living with other people. He was traveling in a fantasy landscape looking more for food and shelter than treasure, and he had something to hide.

But instead of a career as an outlaw or a failed rebel, he was hiding the fact that he was a flying shapeshifter whose other form resembled top-tier predators that were famous for destroying whole cities and eating their inhabitants. Instead of a sword, he had claws.

He didn’t know what he was, or where he should go to find out, and the story deals with what happens when he finally does discover his own people, the Raksura.

theserpentseaIn most sword and sorcery, there’s often an evil sorcerer. Instead of battling a human sorcerer in The Cloud Roads, all the Raksura and their enemies (the Fell) were magical creatures. Some of them, like the mentors, used magic more overtly, but there was nobody who really fit the definition of a sorcerer using ceremonial magic. (Though in The Serpent Sea, the second book of the series, the Raksura do run into some magic-users who better fit the definition of sorcerer.)

One of the other elements that doesn’t fit is that in sword and sorcery, a male protagonist often ends up rescuing a princess (or sorceress, or queen or some other woman who needs rescuing) and she is in effect the prize for his success. One of the things Moon discovers when he meets the Raksura is that his position in their culture, determined by their biology, makes him the prize in that scenario.

He has to figure out if this is what he wants, if what is basically an arranged marriage in a complicated society that can be very difficult to navigate is what will make him happy, or at least content to stay for a while. If he wouldn’t be better off alone. So that is kind of a big way in which The Cloud Roads doesn’t fit the S&S definition, though I feel like there is still a thematic connection.

But there is also a lot of fighting and adventure and escapes and rescues and bad plans that don’t turn out as expected and all the other fun bits that I like in the sword and sorcery I read. So your mileage and definitions may vary, but I tend to think sword and sorcery can stretch far enough to include Raksura.


Martha Wells is the author of the Nebula-award nominated The Death of the Necromancer, the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, Wheel of the Infinite, and other fantasy novels. The final novel of the Books of the Raksura, The Siren Depths, was released in December, and her YA fantasy Emilie and the Hollow World is scheduled for release in April. Charlene Brusso reviewed The Clouds Roads for us here, and we featured The Serpent Sea here.

She has published three stories featuring her heroes Gilead and Ilias in Black Gate: “Reflections” (BG 10), “Holy Places” (BG 11) and “Houses of the Dead” (BG 12).

10 Comments »

  1. The fight scenes (and battle scenes) in The Cloud Roads definitely fit the action paradigm of Sword and Sorcery books, even if the weapons are as you said: sharp claws instead of swords. Smaller skirmishes and then epic battles, appealing to my bloodthirsty soul. And it is some of my favorite kind of sorcery as well, because there are the auguries and visions and the mental invasions Flower can do, the way the Fell rules can speak through the dakti; the floating ships which rely on mysterious technology so advanced it seems like magic… So yeah, fits the genre but in a fresh way, which is what readers like me look for.

    Comment by esteefee - March 13, 2013 2:21 pm

  2. I’m more of a traditionalist, but this sounds nonetheless intriguing! Having never heard of this series, I’m glad to have read this article so I can check it out. And, hey, the show Gargoyles to me is still sword-and-sorcery at heart, and they fought with claws and tails–and it was awesome!

    Comment by Gabe - March 13, 2013 4:13 pm

  3. Thank you, esteefee! And thanks, Gabe, I hope you enjoy it!

    Comment by marthawells - March 13, 2013 4:17 pm

  4. Martha, interesting post. I’ve never really thought of the Raksura books as S&S. To me they’re more of a blend of fantasy and epic science fiction along the lines of Dune or Ringworld because of the complex world building and the way magic is handled. I suspect that’s my scientific background showing. Readers always bring something to a book simply because they filter the work through their experiences, perceptions, and biases. In this case, I was reminded of those works.

    OTOH, I certainly see your point about these books being S&S from a thematic perspective. The Siren Depths is in my TBR pile. Now that I’ve read this post, I’ll be looking at the Raksura in a different way. Thanks for the new perspective.

    And Gabe, I recommend this series highly.

    Comment by westkeith - March 13, 2013 11:01 pm

  5. Thanks, Keith. I do think someone could probably make a good argument that they are science fiction, or a blend of science fiction and fantasy.

    Comment by marthawells - March 14, 2013 8:52 am

  6. […] and her appearance in BG brought us a whole new audience. Her most recent article for us was “How Well Does The Cloud Roads Fit as Sword and Sorcery?,” which appeared here March […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Black Gate Online Fiction Presents the Complete The Death of the Necromancer, by Martha Wells - May 31, 2013 11:55 am

  7. […] (BG 11), and “Houses of the Dead“ (BG 12). Her most recent article for us was “How Well Does The Cloud Roads Fit as Sword and Sorcery?,” which appeared here March 13. Her web site is […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Black Gate Online Fiction: The Death of the Necromancer, Part One - June 3, 2013 12:42 am

  8. […] Places” (BG 11), and “Houses of the Dead“ (BG 12). Her most recent article for us was “How Well Does The Cloud Roads Fit as Sword and Sorcery?,” which appeared here March 13. Her web site […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Black Gate Online Fiction: The Death of the Necromancer, Part Three - June 17, 2013 2:03 am

  9. […] Places” (BG 11), and “Houses of the Dead“ (BG 12). Her most recent article for us was “How Well Does The Cloud Roads Fit as Sword and Sorcery?,” which appeared here March 13. Her web site […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Black Gate Online Fiction: The Death of the Necromancer, Part Five - June 30, 2013 11:25 pm

  10. […] is why, from the instant I first discovered Martha Wells’s Raksura series – The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea and The Siren Depths — they went straight on the list of Books I Will Love […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Fascination of Dragons - May 1, 2014 6:47 pm


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