Published by Scribner on September 28, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Historical, Literary
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Thirteen-year-old Anna, an orphan, lives inside the formidable walls of Constantinople in a house of women who make their living embroidering the robes of priests. Restless, insatiably curious, Anna learns to read, and in this ancient city, famous for its libraries, she finds a book, the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. This she reads to her ailing sister as the walls of the only place she has known are bombarded in the great siege of Constantinople. Outside the walls is Omeir, a village boy, miles from home, conscripted with his beloved oxen into the invading army. His path and Anna’s will cross.
Five hundred years later, in a library in Idaho, octogenarian Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war, rehearses five children in a play adaptation of Aethon’s story, preserved against all odds through centuries. Tucked among the library shelves is a bomb, planted by a troubled, idealistic teenager, Seymour. This is another siege. And in a not-so-distant future, on the interstellar ship Argos, Konstance is alone in a vault, copying on scraps of sacking the story of Aethon, told to her by her father. She has never set foot on our planet.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is one of the most unique books I have ever read. Considering how ardent a reader I am, that is saying something. Let me preface this review by saying I requested the book from my library simply because it was highly popular; by the time the book was available, I had forgotten everything about it. I did not know anything about its plot, its characters, or its setting. I stepped into Cloud Cuckoo Land with open eyes, a blank slate, and zero expectations.
At first, it was hard to follow, but I blame that more on the fact I listened to the audiobook. It took me a while to succumb to the narrators’ currents rather than fighting against them. But once I did, I floated through this novel like a boat on a river. Cloud Cuckoo Land ebbed and flowed, and the descriptions filled my imagination in a way no book has in a long time. What makes the book particularly challenging is that it has numerous points of view, all from different timeframes.
- Anna is from ancient Constantinople. Omeir was pulled into the army attacking its mighty walls. They are both preparing for war in their own ways.
- Zeno, who learned ancient Greek from a fellow prisoner of war during the Korean War, is next, though his view stretches into 2020. Zeno translates a historical text, once thought lost…called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes.
- Seymour is different from the start, as he is autistic, and no one else quite gets him. He discovers an eco-terrorist on the internet, who inspires him to “save the environment” and plant a bomb at a library. His timeline goes from his childhood and into middle age, or even older than that. His, at one point, overlaps with Zeno’s.
- Then there’s Konstance, who lives on an interstellar ship called the Argos, racing toward a new planet. Elements of both Zeno and Seymour’s tales slip into Konstance’s.
Doerr incorporates his fictitious tale of Cloud Cuckoo Land throughout the text, so there’s an additional subplot inside of the overall novel. Six views in all; see how I got confused when listening to the audiobook? Once I understood everything, though, I never wanted this book to end. I loved Anthony Doerr’s style of writing; it is eloquent and the words flow from one page to the next. It probably is not for everyone, though. I will say that. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is heavily descriptive. I loved this quality while listening to it, because it better helped transport me into Doerr’s story. I may not have liked it so much had I been reading the actual book, but it’s impossible for me to say for certain.
Nothing in the text is particularly exciting. And the characters…do not do much. It is a lot of traveling, or a lot of waiting. Cloud Cuckoo Land is not a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat story that will have you biting your fingernails. It has a different kind of draw, at least for me. I loved everything about this story, from beginning to end.