I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Cloud Cuckoo Land, we follow several different characters from several different times and settings: there’s Anna and Omeir from Constantinople in the 15th century, Zeno and Seymour in 2020 America, and Konstance a couple generations in our future on a starship heading for a new planet. All of these characters are touched by a certain story, the ancient myth of magic and mystery and whimsy called Cloud Cuckoo Land, and through these words and through their own unique experiences, they try to make sense of the world.
I’ve heard really good things about this author’s previous work All the Light We Cannot See, so when I got this (really rather long) ARC, I thought I’d better give him a try. Overall, I did like this book, though it didn’t totally blow my mind like I wanted it to.
All the differing settings are really well described—it’s clear Doerr is an experienced, talented writer. It seems he’s done a decent amount of research about Constantinople’s fraught history, and while this does seem to have some basis in real life, this work looks at a siege from a more literary point of view, and focuses more on the people in and around the city rather than on the battles and bloodshed. I also liked the scenes set in Idaho. Doerr paints a vivid picture of a small town until it feels familiar and lived-in for the reader, and the action there keeps you on the edge of your seat. And the scenes on the spaceship are claustrophobic and suspenseful, but compelling.
That said, I did struggle for a good portion of this book with why these narratives were placed together. They felt so disparate, and I didn’t really understand what the point of this book was. However, the longer I read, the more the three main storylines started to connect. It’s actually pretty clever, even touching, to see how such distinct places and events can affect the future. Small actions can have major meaning for people who haven’t even been born yet. And in the end, all three storylines are brought together by one strange fable.
Speaking of that, I did like the sections of the story that featured excerpts from the titular, translated ancient story. It really does read like a weird old tale from millennia ago, though I don’t know much about it’s supposed author, Antonius Diogenes. I admit I assumed this was a witty, if kind of silly self-referential name created for Doerr himself, but apparently he’s real. I learned something.
In the end, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a somewhat strange read, but a good one nonetheless. I liked most of the characters, and the way the storylines interweaved made me want to keep reading. I wasn’t as entirely invested as I perhaps could have been, though; this feels like something I’d be assigned to read in a college literature class rather than a book I’d read for fun. However, it’s still a strong story with excellent pacing and plots. It’s partially a love letter to the power of stories, and how they can endure and offer strength, and partially an examination of the resilience of people throughout history. Obviously, this book is also a lot more than that, but it’s one of those novels I think could mean something wildly different to everyone who reads it.
Overall rating: 8.2/10
Cloud Cuckoo Land comes out today, September 28th, 2021!