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Clouds End
By Sean Stewart

Discussed July 2020

Buy Clouds End from Amazon.com

Dramatis Personae, Abridged

On Clouds End
Rope
Foam
Shale
Brook
Shandy, the Witness
Stone, the Trader
Stick, very old
On Delta
Seven, a hero
Craft, a shipwright
Pond, a lady
Reed, a singer
Rose
Brine
General Hazel Twist
In the Forest
Ivy
Ash
Pine Quill
Garden
Bronze Switch
Bronze Cut
The Emperor
Rowan Hilt, heir
In the Mist
Fathom
Sere
The Singer
Stonefinger
The Gull Warrior
Jo, a haunt
Net

Questions

  1. Did you finish the book?
  2. Did you like the book? Why or why not?
  3. Did you connect to the characters in Clouds End? Did you understand their motivations? Did you find one perspective more compelling than the others?
  4. Clouds End is in many ways a conventional quest fantasy—but the quest is completed three-quarters through the novel. Did you find the conclusion to the quest satisfying? How did you feel about the pacing and the decision to devote so much time to the denouement?
  5. From the title (Clouds End = Bag End, the place of beginning and homecoming) to the last line, which is taken verbatim from The Return of the King, Clouds End wears its Tolkien connection on its sleeve. "The plot structure of the book is explicitly modeled on The Lord of the Rings," Stewart explained in interview. Did you notice the Lord of the Rings references? Did you appreciate them, or find them distracting?
  6. Referencing Tolkien's Catholicism in the same interview, Stewart says, "I began Clouds End with the idea that all truly great works of fantasy are sourced in a moral and indeed religious vision [which] left me, as an atheist . . . in a bit of a fix. Clouds End is an attempt, among other things, to write a Great Fantasy Novel sourced in the moral view of the latter twentieth century." Does he succeed? In what ways does Clouds End reflect late twentieth century morals?
  7. Like Tolkien, Stewart's magic is vague and numinous, not systemized or carefully defined. Did you enjoy this aspect, or would you have preferred more explanations and rules?
  8. As Brook is training as Witness, she goes on an impassioned rant about stories: "Stories are not true. They are not real. They are about this wonderful place, the Mist. Everything is exciting there and everything has a reason and everything works out. So you get . . . discontented with the real world. You start thinking it's boring. . . . I still think most stories hurt more than they help." Shandy challenges her to "Make better ones." What does it mean for something to be a "better" story? How did you feel about Stewart's decision to consistently reinforce the value of the mundane over the magical in Clouds End?
  9. Brook does attempt to make a "better" story, The Seventh Wave. Did you enjoy it, or any of the other stories-within-a-story that pepper the book? Was Brook's revisionist story noticeably different from the other tales?
  10. The book concludes with a fight between Brook and Jo over which of them will get to continue living out her life as Brook. Which Brook do you think wins?
  11. Clouds End is one of the earliest novels Stewart wrote, written in his early twenties, although it was published later, midway through his career. Have you read other books by Stewart? Would you?

The interview referenced is "Autocannibalistic Tradition and the Individual Talent: An Interview with Sean Stewart," Alex Irvine, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 1999, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 262–275.

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