Neil Williamson, Queen of Clouds, NewCon Press, 2022.
Queen of Clouds is a chonky fantasy stand-alone novel which, under the guise of very familiar tropes, tackles topical themes.
Billy is sent by his master to the celebrated city of Karpentine to deliver a sylvan, a sentient humanoid figure made of wood. But Karpentine is a city dominated by its guilds and politics machinations lead to the destruction of the sylvan while Billy is sent to jail. Indentured to the family ruling the weather he soon realises, with the help of Paraphernalia, the heiress of the Weathermakers family, that something is very wrong.
My first contact with Billy wasn't the best. Give me a naive young man coming from the countryside and sent to a big city in a fantasy setting, and I roll my eyes hard. Been there, done that, read all the books in the 90s. Happily, Billy graduates very soon out of this category and shows qualities I could appreciate, and his grief late in the book when he fails to help someone was nuanced and expressive.
I preferred Paraphernalia, although she doesn't escape some stereotypes either. Nonetheless, her determination and conflicting loyalties gave life to the character.
What I particularly enjoyed though was the impressive gallery of characters Williamson offers. From Guild leaders to street urchins, he populates his novel in a convincing way, with a hint of Weird for his more original and interesting characters and a lot of inventiveness when it comes to the creatures and devices.
The plot and the city are inextricably linked in Queen of Clouds and expansive. All the machinations and shenanigans of the Guild leaders as they try to gain power form a large part of the plot. It includes twists, reversals of fortunes, and dramatic revelations aplenty. Beyond the halls of power, Karpentine is a grim place, with poverty, refugees left out to beg outside the city wall, and an inhumane carceral system.
Nonetheless, it is the weather and the sylvans plot that I enjoyed the most. Without it, you'd be reading something you have already read. With it, you're reading a very topical novel in which the weather has gone mad because humans have tinkered with it for their own gain and in which sentient not-exactly-automatons try to find their own way while being needlessly sacrificed because of a sense of loyalty towards humans. Queen of Clouds is a story about a world that is irredemiably changing while humans are still embroiled in their petty schemes and blind to the coming catastrophe.
The pace is quick, with plenty to keep you entertained (see above about the twists, reversals of fortunes, and dramatic revelations aplenty). Billy runs to and fro, desperate to find answers and help. The reader's expectations are more than once subverted, particularly when it comes to the ending which is both satisfying, believable, and a welcome change to some current trends.
I was impressed by the way Williamson weaves some truly original aspects in his novel and he goes seamlessly from action scenes to creepy and heart wrenching moments.
Queen of Clouds will be the perfect read for someone who wants a substantial story, with a solid plot, an expansive world and gallery of characters, and that tackles topical themes.
Disclaimer: A free copy was received but with no obligation attached to review it.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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