Monday, January 2, 2012

Sailing the Serpent Sea

The Serpent Sea
Martha Wells
Night Shade Books
Trade Paper, 342 p., $14.99

If you've read The Cloud Roads, or my review of it, or just looked at the cover of either it or The Serpent Sea, you can probably guess that I'm using the term "sailing" in the title of this review somewhat loosely.

I've been looking forward to this book since I read The Cloud Roads last year, and Night Shade Books was gracious enough to send me a review copy.  It should be hitting store shelves any day now, if it hasn't already.  I've not seen a copy yet, but that doesn't mean the book isn't available.  You should pick up a copy (of both if you haven't read the first one).  That way you can join me in one of my New Year activities, looking forward to the next book in the series.

The story picks up shortly after the close of The Cloud Roads, with the Indigo Cloud court returning to their ancestral home.  This happens to be a Mountain Tree, and the name means exactly what it says.  It's a tree that's purt  near the size of a mountain, as we would say where I hail from.  There are entire forests of these things, and they have branches wide enough for herds of herbivores to live on.  The sequences with the Mountain Tree, brief though they were, reminded me of Alan Dean Foster's Midworld, one of my favorite creations.

Unfortunately, Moon, Stone, Jade, and some of the others don't get to enjoy their new home for long.  The tree is dying.  Sometime within the last turn, the Three Worlds equivalent of a year, someone broke into the tree and took the seed containing the life essence of the tree, and as a result the tree is dying.  Fortunately, the thieves left enough of a trail for them to follow.

What they find is more than any of them expects, with wonders and surprises outside the predictable.  Part of the story involves tracking the thieves, but the bulk of it involves trying to retrieve the seed once they locate the parties responsible for taking it.  Along the way they encounter a number of races, most we've not seen before.

Whereas much of the excitement and suspense in The Cloud Roads came from the threat of the Fell and some intense aerial combat scenes, in The Serpent Sea the suspense comes from the group's efforts, especially Moon and Stone's, to locate the seed and retrieve it.  The book is no less suspenseful.  It's every bit as good as the first without being repetitive. 

Nor is this just a suspenseful novel.  The characters continue to grow, as do their relationships, and Wells makes it all look easy.  Even some of the characters who only show up for one or two scenes come across as individuals.

Of course, since this book is told from Moon's point of view, his character development is where the emphasis is.  Much of this revolves around Moon trying to make a place for himself in the court, something that becomes harder after the group visits a neighboring court.  Moon commits a faux paus that results in Jade having to engage another queen in combat.  By the time the book is over, Moon will experience a number of things and will grow into a true leader.

A few weeks ago, Martha Wells wrote in a post on The Night Bazaar, that after her last contract ended in 2007 and five novels "died on the vine", she was on the verge of giving up writing for good when the book that became The Cloud Roads resurrected itself.  I'm glad it did, and I hope those other novels come back and are published, either by Night Shade, someone else, or Martha herself.  There was a time, more in science fiction than in fantasy, where authors created detailed worlds or universes, such as Known Space (and especially Ringworld), Dune, or more recently Karl Schroeder's Virga, places unique and filled with that sense of wonder that seems to be missing from so much of contemporary fantastic literature. The Cloud Roads and The Serpent Sea are brim full of sense of wonder.  It would have been a shame if Martha had given up before these books got published.  Kudos to Night Shade for publishing her, and the other new writers they've brought into print.  It's one of the reasons I listed Night Shade as a publisher to read in 2012.

As I mentioned, there are a number of races in the Three Worlds.  I hope when Martha is done telling the story of Moon, or if she just wants to take a break, she'll introduce us to more of them.  The Three Worlds is a fascinating place, and I, for one, am eager to explore more of it.  With these books Wells is writing at the top of her game, and given their breath, originality, and complexity, this series is showing indications it could become one of the landmark series of the genre.