Ace Hardcover / 388 pages / 1st edition (August 1, 1996)
Knots. Stories. These bind the island people of Clouds End as tightly as the skin that contains them. Their history is a wealth of stories telling the struggles of the Heroes and the creation of the land that emerges from the Mist. Their future is often foretold by the shadowy stories of each tribe’s Witness. Whatever the outcome of their lives, it is the story that remains, either to be forgotten or retold over and over to each new generation.
Brook is certain that a great story awaits her, before she will step into the role of Clouds Ends’ Witness. Expecting adventure does not prepare her for the sudden, irrevocable change in her life when she is caught out in the mysterious and feared Mist. Nothing could prepare her to see the Mist-thing step from the murk, a perfect twin for Brook. To be “twinned” by a Haunt is one of the great fears of her people. Of twins, only one can remain.
The threat to Brook is pushed aside by the news brought by the Haunt: war is coming to the islanders and someone from Clouds End must sail to the other islands and spread the alarm. Only the best sailor must attempt the journey. Rope, Brook’s lover, is chosen, and Rope, Brook, and their friends Shale and Foam leave their home on a trip few have attempted and fewer have survived. Sometimes almost human and sometimes a gull or a breeze, the Haunt travels with them, suffering the distrust and fear of the others.
Clouds End is a nesting doll of stories within stories, an examination of the way such tales influence people’s actions and are influenced, in turn. Stewart has a compelling style, moving smoothly from current events to yarns told by fireside to lessons taught in the form of legend. His talent for descriptions never bogs down in exhaustive detail, but bursts forth suddenly into action.
Stewart mentions in his acknowledgments that no two of his books are alike. That is good news and bad news for readers. Those who read and adored Mockingbird will find nothing of the Deep South lunacy that made Mockingbird such a delight. The lightness and welcoming tone are missing from Clouds End.
Don’t look to this novel for eccentric and amusing characters; the connection between readers and characters in Clouds End is a more tenuous and remote sort. Despite creating interesting people and sort-of-people to fill the pages, Stewart has written a novel that keeps us interested, but at arm’s length from the lives of Brook and the Islanders and Woodlanders we meet and, sometimes, lose.
But, this is a mild objection at most; Stewart is good. His stories are originals, borrowing nothing from writers before him. He is writing for us now, what will be the Stories of our own future. If folk tales survive from this era, they may well carry the name Sean Stewart. And for a better Singer we could not hope.