Review: Raksura Trilogy by Martha Wells

My wife recommended this series so I am taking a break from epic fantasy for a bit to read some less weighty material.

The first book is easily the best of the trilogy.  We are introduced to our protagonist, Moon, as some kind of winged shapeshifter trying to fit into a hunter/gatherer society.  Unfortunately his other form bears a striking resemblance to the Fell an evil race that destroys all in their path.  The villagers, being remnants of a civilization shattered by the Fell, react badly and only the quick action of a fellow shapeshifter keeps this from being a short series.

From this fellow Raksura, as Moon learns he is called, is named Stone.  Stone is looking for help for his colony and is initially skeptical of Moon’s background and ignorance of the Raksura.  Moon has trust issues of his own after years wandering through groundling (humanoids stuck on the ground) settlements.  Both overcome these doubts and they head back to Stone’s colony.

The rest of the book deals with Moon trying to fit in to Raksura society after decades of believing he was all alone.  His path is made more treacherous as a number of the Raksura are leery of allowing a solitary consort (the caste of which Moon is a part).  This is where the book shines.  You are learning about the fascinating culture of the Raksura at the same time Moon is and Wells has a great hand at characterization.  Moon’s orphaned past plays very well against a community welcoming him and shunning him simultaneously. Always at the back of his mind is when they are going to turn on him like his last home. The colony itself isn’t quite sure what to make of Moon since he isn’t crazy like a solitary but he doesn’t fit the perception of consorts as kind of wimpy, shy types.

Stone as the grumpy grandfather suffering under the inanity of his children is always good for a chuckle as well.  Then there is the crazy queen in Pearl and the younger crazy queen in Jade that keep the court politics always fresh.  In fact later we learn that all the queens are crazy and it is the male consorts who seem to have the most level heads.  It makes you wonder why the queens rule…

A couple of things do irk me though.  Moon seems far too well adjusted considering his life circumstances.  A little paranoia is pretty minor considering what he has been through.  Secondly, his romance with Jade progresses far too rapidly for my tastes.  Maybe it is just a Raksura thing since the breeding castes are pretty small.

Apart from that the colony is later besieged by Fell and we learn some startling facts about their plans and abilities.  This provides some tasty action sequences to end the story and hints at future storylines involving the Fell.

Book two is almost a side story.  They have gone back to their old tree colony after being attacked by the Fell in the last book.  There they discover that the magical seed powering the tree is gone.  The best scenes in the book all take place when they send an envoy to the Emerald Twlight court, a more large and traditional Raksuran court.  Emerald Twilight seems as baffled as Moon as to what to do with him and he causes all sorts of trouble.

Then the book takes a decidedly different turn as the travel to a giant leviathan with a city upon its back and a pretty typical adventure plays out with all the requisite scenes involving the biology of a creature that makes our heroes look like bacteria.  This stuff is only interesting if you like the Dying Earth vibe of the books; that is, a world where great magical civilizations once lived and even their discarded remains still harbor amazing wonders.  Even then this sojourn is nothing special.  Situations like this don’t play to the series’ strengths: Moon and the Raksura.

Book three seems to realize this and the first two thirds has Moon in a bitter reunion with the colony in which he was born.  Thus he learns the devotion of his new clan to him and the equally strong devotion of the mother he never knew.  Wrapped up in all of this are the incendiary personalities of the Raksuran queens and their very stringent rules that would somehow allow Moon’s birth court to reclaim him.  Who thought 200 pages of winged shapeshifters haggling over one consort could be so interesting.

Unfortunately, the last third of the book drops all of these plotlines to bring the Fell back into play.  This connects back to the story of the first book and we see why the Fell acted as they did.  The reveal of the entity manipulating the Fell is pretty weak and a chance for an intriguing bit of lore discarded.  The Raksura don’t even defeat him and it appears he had no chance of ever escaping.

The book just kind of ends after that, all the political wrangling kind of forgotten in the wake of Fell activities.  I would read more books, but that would require that Martha Wells write something other than the Raksura well.

As a postscript I would note that more authors need to explore the social justice of the societies they create.  In Butcher’s Alera the High Lords and the Citizens are the strongest furycrafters and conveniently the ultimate law of the land is the juris macto, trial by combat.  This assures the powerful stay in power.  Yet, the only thing characters briefly mention is slavery, which while more loathsome, is not that much worse than the underclass of non-Citizens who have no recourse against their betters.  The absence of popular revolt is further depressing because the most interesting part of Rome is the scheming of the upper classes amongst each other while constantly throwing bones to the populace to keep them placated.

Wells’ Raksura are equally unstable.  They are the combination of two races, the Aeriat and the Arbora.  The former contribute royalty and sterile warriors.  It is the latter that provide food and art and healers and augury.  One wonders what the Arbora get out of the deal since they seem to be competent warriors of their own (certainly the equal of any groundling).  It reminds me of Veblen’s theory of the warrior class that leeches off the productive members of society while convincing everyone of their indispensability.  I feel like it would be interesting to find an Arboran society that overthrew their Aeriat.

Similarly, consorts align well with the conspicuous consumption coined by Veblen.  He believe that a house wife was the ultimate luxury good, the more useless the better to show off your wealth.  Consorts are supposed to live sheltered, carefree lives in the normal Raksuran court.  I think it would be interesting if this was tied to an explicit show of strength and Moon’s competence actually reflected poorly on his court.