This book is a novel constructed out of six different stories. In the 19th Century a lawyer encounters savagery and civillisation in unexpected places as he sails across the Pacific. In 1930s Belgium a troubled young English musician accepts a job assisting an aging composer. In 1970s California an investigative reporter stumbles across a conspiracy at a nuclear power plant. In the early 21st Century a vanity publisher goes on the run from the relatives of his murderous bestselling author. In the futuristic state of Nea So Corpos an artificially born waitress begins to awaken to the reality of the world around her. In a post-apocalyptic Hawaii a young tribesman warily helps a woman visiting from a more advanced civilisation.
Cloud Atlas is a very ambitious book. Constructing a coherent novel out of six largely unconnected stories would be ambitious by itself, but it’s even more ambitious to have those stories be in different genres (historical fiction, pulp thriller, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic) and written in six different distinctive writing styles. To have any one of those stories be weak or to have any of them failing to fit in with the others could have brought the entire novel down, and while I don’t think the book is perfect I think all the different stories are at least good and in most cases very good.
At the halfway point of the novel I was a little bit dubious about whether the different stories were fitting together in such a way that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but I think the second half of the novel does a great job of tying them together. Despite being very different in terms of the writing and the plots I think thematically the stories are consistent with each other, although in some of the stories the themes are expressed more subtly than in others. Occasionally the exploration of the themes does feel a little bit heavy-handed, I think in some circumstances it is reasonable to have the characters musing on the themes of the story (it is the sort of thing Adam Ewing might write about in his journal), but occasionally it does feel a bit unsubtle, for example when Isaac Sachs is jotting down notes about the past and future. I think the differences in tone and writing style between the different stories does add something to the overall novel, although Timothy Cavendish’s story is a bit lightweight in comparison to some of the others it is a bit refreshing to have an entertaining caper to contrast with the often tragic events in some of the other stories. Looking at the basic premise of many of the stories it could easily have been a gloomy and pessimistic novel, but although a lot of bad things happen one consistent theme is that as long as some people try to make the world a better place there is still some hope for improvement, the darkest ending to any of the stories comes from the one where the main character in it has given up on hoping for things to get better.
The characterisation is strong throughout the novel, particularly of the six main characters although there are a number of memorable supporting characters as well. Sometimes the characters are not particularly likeable, but I thought they were all very believable characters. Since five of the stories are narrated by their protagonists the different ways in which those stories are written does reflect a lot about what they characters are like and how they choose to describe events can tell us as much about them as the events themselves, for example Adam Ewing’s naïve blindness to what is going on around him, Robert Frobisher’s increasingly troubled letters or the way that Sonmi~451 has realised the power of the very human act of storytelling. I think the universal instinct to tell stories and how the storyteller can shape the story they are telling both consciously and unconsciously is another one of the main themes of the novel.
I thought the most powerful of the stories were probably “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After” and “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, although the writing might be at its best in “Letters From Zedelghem”. “Half Lives” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” have a bit less depth than some of the others but they are still entertaining. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” supplies a good beginning and ending to the novel. One thing I’m not completely sure about is whether the idea of characters throughout the six stories being in some way reincarnations of each other was just a gimmick or whether it really added anything to the overall novel, I suspect the book wouldn’t have been weakened much if that idea had been taken out.
Overall, I would say this is a very good book. The second half is probably better than the first since the first half does have to go through the lengthy process of introducing six different stories. It sets ambitious goals for itself and I think it probably meets most of them.
Rating : 9 / 10
Compared to modern SF novels the length of this book might almost be closer to being a short story than a novel but Zelazny does mange to pack more ideas into a short space than many other manage in much longer works.
The main character, Render, is a dream therapist who works by manipulating the dreams of his patients to turn them into immersive experiences where Render shapes the dreams to help his clients gain new perspectives on their issues. This is a perilous occupation since if the therapist gets too involved in the dreams they are creating then they risk their own sanity. Render is one of the best in the world at what he does, however in this book he takes on his biggest challenge to date as he takes on a blind woman (and aspiring dream therapist) as a patient who wants to experience seeing in her dreams what she can never see in reality.
The novel being partially set in various dreams that Render has created does allow for some memorable scenes and there’s also plenty of imagination shown elsewhere in the world Zelazny describes, particularly memorable is a guide dog with an enhanced intellect and some genetic modifications allow him some ability to speak whose personality is an intriguing mix of canine and human. Occasionally the technology does feel a bit dated (the book was written in the 1960s) but most of the time it doesn’t detract from the story.
I think Zelazny is one of the genre’s best writers of prose and there is some very good writing in here. The plot is also intriguing but some parts of it are perhaps a bit underexplained and the ending feels rushed and unnecessarily vague in terms of describing what exactly has happened. I’m also unsure about the purpose of some of the scenes and subplots, particularly concerning Render’s precocious son whose visit to an exhibition on interplanetary travel feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the novel. There is some good characterisation in here, particularly of Render and his patient although the supporting characters mostly don’t get much depth.
Overall, I’d say this was a good book but not one of Zelazny’s best works, compared to a masterpiece like “Lord of Light” it feels as if it wasn’t quite as good as it should have been.
Rating : 7 / 10
There’s a passage in A Memory Of Light where a character thinks that ‘I can’t die yet, I’ve still got a book to write’. I’m not sure whether that line was one of those written by Robert Jordan, but he probably felt something similar and sadly we’ll never know how close the concluding volume in his Wheel of Time series is to what Jordan would have written if he’d lived to see the series to completion. Brandon Sanderson’s work on the last three books in the series had already delivered one of the best books in the series in “The Gathering Storm” and the somewhat uneven “Towers of Midnight”, but after fourteen books and thousands of pages it was always going to be the final volume that was the most important. The book does have some significant flaws but it does succeed in its most important goal of providing a satisfying ending to the series.
One of the flaws is that the book gets off to a relatively slow start, although there are some good bits in the first half of the book there are also a lot of repetitive battle scenes as war breaks out on multiple fronts. Since it always seem inevitable that a bigger, more significant, battle lies ahead it’s hard to care about most of these early battles and despite the large numbers involved they do almost feel more like skirmishes. In some cases the tactics described are a bit baffling and some parts of the warring forces seem puzzlingly underpowered compared to how they were described earlier in the series, in particular the Aiel (who should be a much bigger force than any of their allies) and the Aes Sedai (whose effectiveness in battle seems to have decreased significantly). One area in which this book is a bit lacking compared to the rest of the series is that there’s relatively little time spent on characterisation and most of the characters don’t really develop much over the course of the book, some fairly significant characters also get ignored for large portions of the story. While the backdrop of an apocalyptic war does mean that it’s inevitable there isn’t as much time spent on character development as in previous books (which spent an often excessive amount of time on sometimes repetitive characterisation), it does feel like there was some scope for more characterisation, particularly in the first half of the book. One particular frustration is that after characters have been separated by the plot for most of the series they often don’t get to interact in this book despite being reunited, the lack of scenes for the recently-returned Moiraine is one of the most annoying examples.
Fortunately, the book does start to improve in the second half. The early skirmishes being forgettable was worrying but the climactic Last Battle itself is much more effective, despite still having some flaws. After having been a mysterious figure in the background for most of the series Demandred finally gets to take centre stage leading his forces in the Last Battle and overall he manages to be a more credible threat than his fellow Forsaken have often managed to be in previous books. The final battle does benefit from there being an enemy that isn’t just a faceless mass of Trollocs and Myrdraal. If the early battles lack a sense of any real peril, the final battle does a better job of conveying the risks and the cost of the battle and the deaths of a number of major and minor characters does raise the stakes, often the series has been a bit predictable but some of the deaths here do manage to be surprising, particularly one of the series’ most important characters. Most of the battle is told in a single 200-page chapter and while I don’t think battles scenes are necessarily Sanderson’s strong point and the battle tactics are still a bit opaque I think it does make a fitting climax to some of the series’ main plots.
Simultaneously with the Last Battle there’s also a more metaphysical conflict going on as Rand finally confronts the Dark One. This isn’t a conflict of armies but more of a conflict of ideas as the Dark One confronts Rand with visions of possible futures, and then exposes the holes in Rand’s own ideas of how things should turn out. I think this is one area where the character development does work well as Rand reacts to the different possible futures and also has to adapt his thinking to move away from some of the ideas he had at the start of the book which are exposed as being flawed. The Last Battle might get a bigger page count but this is the real conclusion to the series and I think thematically it’s the strongest part of the book, and builds well upon Rand’s story arc in “The Gathering Storm” which I think is one of the best bits of the series.
The books ends fairly shortly after the climax of the two storylines with an epilogue that is adequate but slightly underwhelming, in some ways it might have been nice to see a bit more of the aftermath but at the same time I think it can’t be unwise for books to linger on for too long after they have concluded the main plot.
I didn’t find the contrast between Jordan and Sanderson’s styles to be too jarring and a lot of time it is difficult to say for sure whether a passage was one of those completed by Jordan before his death. Sanderson does write some occasionally clunky phrases (one particular metaphor comparing Elayne’s army to yeast was memorably bad) and sometimes his choice of words feels a little bit anachronistic for the setting but overall he does a good job even if Jordan at his best was a better writer.
Compared to earlier books in the series I think this has too many flaws to be counted as one of the best, but it does enough right in supplying a satisfying conclusion for the main plot. A disappointing conclusion to the series could have dragged down the whole series but I think this is a fitting ending to a series which is undeniably an impressive achievement despite fluctuations in quality and being several books longer than it should have been.
Rating : 8 / 10