It’s nice to see steampunk moving more into the mainstream, and Nick Cook has used it to create quite a page-turner.
Cloud Riders is a story about Dom, who lives in Tornado Alley with his mum at their family diner. His dad, a storm chaser, disappeared after flying into a tornado to catch footage from inside the spout. However, there have been no storms for the past year and business is slow, making Dom feel restless. Then, an unexpected, massive twister hits and an airship appears from inside. What follows is quite a tale: including lost royals, ambitious lords, airship sabotage, rare genetic gifts, portals to parallel worlds, questionable morals, a strained friendship, adventure, brass instruments, and a band of storm chasers sewing up airship balloons.
As you would expect from the steampunk genre (which takes its principal aesthetic cues from the retro-futurist predictions of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells), the gadgets are very compelling and the airships are beautifully described. Moreover, they are all neatly woven into a well-paced plot, which nicely leads to the cliffhanger ending that leaves you ready for the sequel, yet not chewing at the bit over a lot of unanswered questions.
As much as love triangles in young adult fiction are a bit old-hat now, this one takes Dom’s point of view, rather than the moping, insipid, allegedly female one adopted by Stephenie Meyer in her Twilight series. This is refreshing in itself, and makes the romance subplot a bit more palatable. Jules – Dom’s best friend and obvious love triangle participant – is a great character, who has helped her dad in their garage since her mum passed away. It’s nice to see a female character who is able to rebuild a Mustang and keep a cool head in a crisis. She helps Dom through some tricky situations, rather than the other way round.
The other love triangle participant, Angelique, is a lost steampunk rebel princess, and while also strong, is a bit of a borderline case. Yes, she can wire and pilot an airship and has a great grasp of complicated maths (as all Cloud Riders do, as it’s the nature of the job); but she’s also manipulative and insufferable at times. She also has an annoying habit of saying ‘Of course!’ or ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ A great femme fatale one minute, and then a horrid know-it-all brat who blames her kicking you in the face on her martial-arts training the next.
This leads me to some issues I had with Cook’s otherwise perfectly serviceable steampunk adventure. I did find it a bit ‘Enid Blyton Convenient’ that Dom – descendant of a lost Cloud Rider royal line – turns out to be both a Navigator and a Ship Whisperer. That anyone can genetically inherit even one such gift is a bit silly, albeit acceptable for purposes of the story; but someone inheriting two distinct rare gifts is just too easy. I would have liked to have seen Dom painstakingly learn the Navigator skill, and find he had inherited the Ship Whisperer gift whilst doing so.
I also found Cloud Riders to be rather sloppily edited in places. Some dialogue is confusingly formatted, and I noted a misuse of ‘it’s’/‘its’ as well. On page 133, there seems to be a mistake over who is present: I believe it is meant to be Angelique alone with Dom, but she is identified as Bella in one paragraph. All easily fixed, which, although not Cook’s fault of course, does let the book down a little for me.
Otherwise, Cloud Riders is a fun read and hard to put down. I look forward to the sequel Breaking Storm.