09 October 2022


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Dickens wrote at the start of A Tale of Two Cities. He was thinking of politics and the run up to the French Revolution, but modern mystery writers might well echo his sentiments. Never has there been more opportunity to see one's darlings in print, but rarely has it been so hard to make a decent profit.

And then while narrative – factual, counter-factual, frankly fake – is a crucial part of our present turbulent culture, writing stories and studying them is certainly taken less seriously than the all important STEM disciplines. 

In this atmosphere, Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land is a cause for modest celebration: a fine novel that unabashedly celebrates stories – even silly ones like the fanciful ancient tale that fascinates so many of his characters.

Based on The Golden Ass of Apulieus, the story of a shepherd who longs to become a bird and fly to the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land, opens the wonders of literacy for Anna, an impoverished apprentice embroiderer in  Constantinople just before its fall to the Turks. It will later fascinate Omeir, an illiterate Muslim conscripted with his two beloved oxen for the Sultan's siege army, who comes to see the book, now carefully hidden, as a source of magic. 

Researching the Greek story causes Konstance, alone on an inter-planetary starship, to regard her supposedly complete library with a skepticism that will change her life, while presenting the shepherd-turned-donkey to the next generation proves consolation and purpose for Zeno, traumatized soldier and talented translator.

Doerr, whose Pulitzer prize winning All the Light We Cannot See also featured youngsters on the cusp of adolescence, again writes with special perception about children, whether his two 15th century juveniles facing poverty, war, and possible enslavement, or modern day Seymour, clever but mildly autistic, whose only friend is an owl, or Konstance, whose peculiar life is definitely in science fiction territory.

 A situation further away from the Ancient Greeks than hers could hardly be imagined, yet the old story about a man who wants to be a bird and is mistakenly tranformed into a donkey captures Konstance, too, just as it does the school children who, with Zeno's help, will transform the old tale into a little play.

Indeed, the many uses of stories, the wonder of literacy, and the perfection of the printed book bind together the disparate narratives in Cloud Cuckoo Land, suggesting the application of another old bit of wisdom: Man does not live by bread alone.

The Falling Men, a novel by Janice Law with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations are available from Apple Books

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