Book Review, Hard Read, Historical Fiction, Scifi, Serious

Cloud Cuckoo Land: the 600-page bait-and-switch.

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr (2021)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. 5/5.

This is also one of the worst books I’ve ever read. 0/5.

This book is 622 pages long. I read it in three days. That’s about ~200 pages a day, give or take. I woke up, I read, I went to work, I came home, I read some more.

What’s the point of living? I thought, wiping down the counter at my worthless, minimum wage job, where the CEO makes $20-million a year and the average order I serve would cost me an hour of pay to buy.

The seas are rising, species are dying off by the thousands, and I’m wasting my precious moments of life—existing on the only habitable planet in the known galaxy—peddling sugary drinks to teens with $100 bills.

My parents are getting older, my pets have all died, and my descendants will probably never get to see tigers in the flesh. I’ll never be 15 again. In two generations, I’ll be wiped from existence. Do we live just to die?

And then I sat down to watch the Great British Baking Show, and I felt a little better.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a bait-and-switch. The fantastical cover mixed with the inner jacket promised me a story of hope, resilience, and joy. It promised me a magnificent tapestry of interconnected tales spanning the generations. It promised me fantasy, whimsy, and an escape from the mundanes of my life.

That’s a lie. This is a speculative fiction about death, war, suffering, and wounds that never heal. Every character in this book dies. That’s not a spoiler: it’s plainly stated on page 33.

This is one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

Everyone dies. Everyone suffers. There is no silver lining, no light at the end of the tunnel. They are born just to slave, suffer, and die. All in all, this novel is a huge, massive, 600-page bummer. I read it with my teeth grit, an impending sense of doom at every flip of the page. This is when the pet dies. This has to be when the sister, mother, father, friend dies. This is when, after there’s no one left to kill, the protagonist falls. If not this one, then the next chapter, or the next. But it’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming.

This is framed like a fantasy epic, but it’s not. This is a book about the horrors of war, the horror of man, and the inescapable hopelessness of being poor, misunderstood, and different. Anna and Omeir are part of the siege on Constantinople in the 1450s. Everyone dies. Zeno is a Korean War vet, recounting his time as a prisoner of war. Everyone dies. Seymour is an eco-terrorist, trying to prevent the impending destruction of the Idaho forests. Everyone dies. Konstance is a teen in the year 2100, onboard an intergalactic ship heading to better earths. I don’t have to tell you what happens to everyone.

Their stories are all bound together with the tale of Aethon, an ancient-Greek shepherd who becomes a donkey, a bass, and a bird in a foolish attempt to reach the mythical Cloud Cuckoo Land. They all daydream about this story, gleaning hope from it as everything around them crumbles.

This is also one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Doerr weaves the written word into a beautiful tapestry. Short and sweet, heart-wrenching and tender, he shows you a multitude of perspectives, experiences, and lives. He evokes the gritty reality of Constantinople without salaciously including slavery, torture, and sexual assault (like so many male authors love to do to ‘keep it realistic’). He takes you to a 1950s Idaho, a 2014 classroom, a virtual 2100 library. He stitches these stories together seamlessly, interlacing them in a way that they all flow into the same tale of Aethon. You know they all die, you’ve been warned since page 33, and yet you keep reading on because you’re waiting to step back and finally see that grander picture.

It’s just a shame this beautiful tapestry is a 700-year tragedy. There is no happy ending. This is not that fantastical epic you wish it was, to whisk you away to brighter lands.

I read this book in three days, about ~200 pages a day. That’s 200 pages of Doerr telling me What is the point of living, if you will only die? Why try to seek joy, when it will always end? Why go on living, when everyone you love will die before you?

You should read it, for the same reason that every child is required to read Old Yeller and Black Beauty in an effort to understand sadness. You should read it, because it’s stunningly written and delicately crafted. You should read it, because it makes you feel the prick behind your eyeballs and weight in your soul in a way that so few books can.

But you should not read it in three days, 200 pages a day, or you’ll be at work thinking I’m nothing more than dust on the surface of a tiny, tiny planet set in the middle of nothing while serving cake pops to 12-year-olds. Read this one slowly, with enough time to watch an enjoyable movie, talk to your family, and read something warm and cozy between the heavy chapters.

About 3/4 of the way through, when I began this review, I said to myself: “Even the most amazing ending will not make it worth trudging through 500 pages of pain and loss.” I was going to give this one 3/5 for being so damn miserable, for making me read through 500 pages of suffering (while being written so impressively well).

I was wrong. I deleted that review. The ending was worth it. It’s not a happy ending by any means, but it’s so touching and meaningful that it was worth trudging through 500 pages of suffering.

I understand now why this hottie greeted me when I picked this one up from the local library.

And I’ll probably leave her for the next reader too, so when they get to the Korean War Flashback, they’ll have that same moment of clarity and realize oh, so that’s why Mother Mary is here.

So, I’m giving this a 4/5. This is a 5/5 book—don’t get me wrong—but this is my blog and I get to be a little subjective based on my own personal enjoyment of the subject matter. I didn’t like the war, the sadness, the depression, and the loss. I felt zero joy reading this, and yet I have open in another window. This wasn’t the silly, vapid fantasy novel I sought, but sometimes it feels good to read something so heart-wrenching that there’s a glint of catharsis when you finally finish it, and some part of you feels a little lighter.

Fun: ☆☆☆
Believable: ★★★★
Readable: ★★★
Reread? No. Definitely.
Recommend? Yeah. But give yourself some air. ∎

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