The Master of Clouds – Howard Stephen Watts

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I have just purchased this Kindle novel for my iPad. It is a shame for me that there seems to be no real book version available.

THE MASTER OF CLOUDS by Howard Stephen Watts

The author is my favourite book cover artist (see the regular covers he provides for Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction and this one for BFS Journal #13).

My previous reviews of his fiction HERE and HERE and HERE.

**I intend to real-time review this novel in the comment stream below as and when I happen to read it.**

18 thoughts on “The Master of Clouds – Howard Stephen Watts

  1. Prologue
    ONE

    “Your city is immortal. Your ancestors have thwarted the desert and the mountain, tamed the river’s brutality, and molded them all with their bare hands.”
    A spectacular opening where the stonemasonic city venue for this ‘Science Fantasy’ novel is built cinematically before our eyes, but better than any cinema can possibly build it. Within one’s mind, it is built for real, including the geographical upheaval involved, with mountain and dam, and sort of Chinese Wall to the nth power…leading later into the more familial details and a single point of view, of Sol’s family, and the arrival of multiple distant visions of travelling caravans, his wife’s relations among them. So much adroitly built up, massive and airy, material and mental, a few odd words like nullibiety and Hathranelzra, and possibly conspiratorial things looming, I feel I am only scratching a vast surface, a reader so far akin to one of the novel’s own Grade One Theorists…?
    I do not intend to itemise the plot of this novel, but tell you how it affects me as I wend my way beyond the first grade of its opening. I shall take longer gulps of text in future before reporting back here. No guarantee of timing.

  2. TWO
    “Others had turned their backs to it, their eyes closed in prayer as they rocked forward and backward. Now the gargantuan shape was within walking distance, solid, not a lie or a distant cloud-like apparition to be explained away as a natural phenomenon or ignored as inconsequential, and as Sol and Opi walked closer to it, the grey, green and yellow tones of the surrounding stonework seemed to be part of a dream, remote and altogether unwelcome against the colourful curving hulk of the object.”
    I have come back here quicker than I anticipated, as I notice I probably misunderstood Grade One Theory, as in our world Musical grades climb from Grade One to Grade Eight. Here, I now assume Grade One is the best. Also, I do not intend in future to quote such huge chunks from the novel as I have just done, but I feel this passage gives only a grasp of ‘The Trophy’ built in the city precincts, something far more descriptively complex and important than this merest grasp indicates. There is a sense of history building up as Sol the Cardinal takes his son Opi to the Trophy, while his wife goes to meet her clans, once enemies of the city in an earlier war. A promise that he may later be allowed to take Opi actually within the Trophy, perhaps some ultra Escher-like construction? A sense of some religion (not yet fathomed), too, and moored boats appealingly described in crisp Fantasysese. Now I will really go away for a good while to absorb much more of this enticing text and return with just impressions rather than possible spoilers.

  3. THREE, FOUR, FIVE
    Never wonder, always theorise!”
    I would call it a page-turning compulsion provided by this novel, other than the fact that there are no real pages, which I miss turning and from which my mind usually absorbs the palimpsest of word on paper for my reading and reviewing. No easy ability to pencil mark passages I want later to draw back to my attention. Yet, I am drawn on by the text’s wide panoply of personal and universal truth as theory, its following silhouette, its rounding out of religion, its cardinality or pecking-order of ambition, its favours and labyrinthine enticements of the Trophy for Sol’s son, the caravans of three-tiered houses, the cross-currents of family and history, and those mysterious last-cast nets about which Roanne — Sol’s wife now meeting her newly arrived (by means of those caravans) schism of a family for the Festival — questions her mother and presumptuous older brother regarding her own paternal bereavement just announced. Nets “Ideal for snaring Throd fish and Minips, his favourite, if you remember?” I can’t hope to explain the intriguing depth of some of these factors, as this novel’s world continues to build around me or net me in its trammels.

  4. SIX, SEVEN
    “My beliefs are my own. If anything I’m the edge around the coin Sol and Hulneb are the faces of, joined to both by the thinnest edge. I’m part of the whole, but a separate part unto myself.”
    This is an overt science fantasy of wonder, immersive in itself, but, looking deeper, if you wish, there are immersive, as well as interactive, qualities, too, from the perceived structures within it, such as the Trophy called Oosar, the familial, the religious, the ambitious, the propganda-youtube-type show of possible self-immersion by fire not for one’s beliefs so much as for the result of theorisations beyond belief, beyond that aforementioned wonder. Theorisations of beachhead as a religion-battled state? The sacrifice of a loved one, too, to Oosar. Intentional or unintentional? Meanwhile, this work seems to be a ‘contoured replica’ of itself, more real, somehow, than what it replicates. Objects or constructions within it resist ‘oozingly’ as much as the characters themselves are resisting so far the release of information that they hold, information that may solve or exacerbate the schisms. Including the schism of truth and fiction. Inside and out.

  5. EIGHT, NINE
    “…all I ever see are fish talking to loaves of brown bread and playing games of chance.”
    Dichotomies, between two in a mixed religious marriage, between a simple absorbing science fantasy of fiction and a far more achingly complex panoply – I don’t know where to begin again. Walking a line between those dichotomies, like someone, these days, in our own world, being tested for drunkenness. And all such historic spirituality to be abandoned for pragmatic control of all those many common believers who teeter on the sidelines or on the edge of religion’s overthought, over-theorised chaos. Clothes built as padded cages, seals with spheres like Todash, and our Sol who sees his presumably sacrificial son in a glimpse of rebellion. Man and Wife either side of the divide (in which divided waters the Holy Ones stand naked), a couple now commissioned to prove as if that divide never existed. And nubiles puerile with desire, “to become harbingers of the new creed.” Meanwhile, the compelling story continues with or without this my over-theorised duty towards a cloudily tenuous screen book’s dreamcatching.

  6. TEN, ELEVEN, TWELVE
    “Consider this; if that object had been the product of another species as your dogma teaches, then our feeble minds would have no comprehension of its mechanisms. We would be as infants lost in the desert.”
    There is a tangible texture of plot here that you need to absorb, some of which, I feel, is by osmosis rather than plain reading, the symbiosis of dichotomies, the symbiosis of brothers-in-law, whether negative or positive regarding their respective religions straining both to become one religion or two religions at once, whatever the stronger pragmatic or conspiratorial purpose happens to be, amid plumes of inhaled smoke, the symbiosis of a son or nephew abandoned or genuinely lost, the Trophy an empty carcass or other worldly artefact, Opi’s mother or Sol’s wife surrogate murderer of father or phantom lover of her own son by occupying his empty bed, a plot with a cape so long the reader trips over it or a plot that is a blend of a lunatic asylum, care home and prison, eating cold fish or fartleberries…? Someone calls out and claims to be you! Tim, Tim, Tim, time to sink or swim.
    “The building hid in plain sight amid a network of meandering alleyways, sitting with its back against the fringe of a small park.”

  7. THIRTEEN
    “You’ve spent your entire life theorising then when you really needed to think clearly, you can’t.”
    Indeed, I feel that now with my gestalt real-time reviewing. I changed the name of this site today to include the word ‘labyrinth’, for this review and my concurrent one here of a different book. This Master of Clouds book uniquely seems to want to throw me off the scent retrocausally. The rock-murdering dream changes in the light of another dream withheld until now, a balcony dream. Just as the stone idol is also thrown in anger and becomes a clue to the labyrinth of Oosar the Trophy and Opi’s whereabouts within it? Obsessions followed by those obsessions’ disillusionments. Or vice versa? I theorise that any religion must start with some form of disillusionment for a religion to be needed at all. That or blind inculcation.

  8. FOURTEEN
    “To the wall on their right crackled an open fire, where a young girl stood barefoot slowly turning a spit holding an unrecognisable carcass.”
    This long chapter seems to be turning on just such a spit. Firstly, I am rather intrigued by the concept of ‘memory dream’ as dreamt by yourself of someone else’s dream. This plot is a ‘memory dream’ of sorts as a whole, I guess. The author’s memory dream? And the reader is thus increasingly implicated, or so it seems. Like that of the Oosar Trophy, the carcass is unrecognisable and not necessarily empty at all as some have claimed. It just needs to be cooked gradually. This is the Funeral scene and all its religio-conspiratorial machinations, including whole shocking character shifts. I enjoyed the pungent bavardage of the pub, too, with its own passable byway to a section of the turning plot. The threat to carve another nostril. The fermenting barrels. Life, our own internet and real-time life, seems encapsulated by a permeating “infatuated with the Trophy” sensibility, while we enjoy the sumptuous portrayal of the various religios at the ceremony, and the signal familial or collegiate treachery impending… “He’s used to arguing points rather than facing them.” I know the feeling. As the conflict continues even as it unfolds. Not cooked yet. “I will share with you my truth and integrity for all to see.”

  9. FIFTEEN

    “All news is written now, removing any chance of the news being embellished by those seeking it to serve their own agenda.”

    “We’ve all spent far too long separated by our beliefs and fears. I believe it is time to cast aside those ancient childish restrictions and unite everyone under one philosophy.”

    “The worship of oneself wouldn’t be enough. Everyone needs to look to a higher level.”

    “These fictitious future possibilities, and let us all hope they are just that, are exactly what I am here to present to you, and, hopefully prevent,…”

    “Wars always start with just one man.”

    Please excuse so many quotes from this very long chapter, but they do give an ‘unspoilt’ flavour to this work, a work that I shall dub as a unique detailed glimpse (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) of a subtly stoical, sometimes stodgily Oosar-oozing, sometimes airily swashbuckling, multi-double or triple bluff of a Machiavellian Peripheral-Vision along a word tight-rope or drunkenness-test line of text. It also reflects or parallels divisive cultures in our own political histories toward pragmatic alliances, side-treaties, jealousies familial and religious, shared fears, even shared nightmares, considerations of mixed or tainted blood, exploitation of minorities or immigrants, true and false ententes-cordiales, medieval-like Internet flashmobs and planned or spontaneous treacheries. I am still not sure I have nailed it completely, as the pub’s byway is actually used with surprising results and further machinations I had not predicted. I do now predict, and eagerly anticipate, scenes within Trophy Oosar itself forthcoming.

  10. SIXTEEN, SEVENTEEN, EIGHTEEN

    “…it appeared there was always a hidden schema, and the older the individual, the more convoluted and distorted were their truths pertaining to the perception of the past.”

    “He manifested himself as a single footstep from a wandering ghost past children’s cramped bedrooms, adding credence to a bedtime story, or the belief adults knew only a fragment of…”

    “Others believing the carriage’s supple white leather seats were formed from the skin of heretics, sacrificed for their idiotic beliefs,…”

    The above are more ‘unspoilt’ flavours to this ‘hidden schema’ of a multi-‘whodunnit-really?’, as I see it. This gestalt from the twisting and twirling of the plot’s leitmotifs. Oosar mocking those swarming below, those flashmobs, plus the divergences of possible futures, the strains of familial and schismatic religious loyalties, the remarkable portrait of the ostensible ‘villain’ as attention-seeker and manipulator now gone unpredictable. The book itself long since gave up its own predictabilities, in tune with its own villain. I have put my own theories about it in a sealed envelope for my own safety, or so it seems, or as the text tends to make things seem, or as fabricated or role-playing as losing oneself in its suspension of disbelief seems to have become. With people switched for offal in sacks – or simply disguised?

  11. NINETEEN
    It somehow seems appropriate that the route to oozy Oosar (if I understand correctly the destination of our swashbuckling ‘Temple of Doom’ type family of Opi seekers) is by means of a sewer system of bulky flushings via huge statues, valves and literal baffles, and theories of the waste science of irrigation and blockage…
    This book’s own two-way filters need opening and flushing from time to time, too, I wonder or theorise.

  12. TWENTY
    It is difficult to uncling and convey the nature of this electronic text, as if it is itself a form of a structured Oosar, with an inimical or cloying resistance yet with an autonomously bespoke bodily (characters) or cerebral (readers) assistance as you negotiate the structure within the book or the structure that is the book. Here we have echoes of a fitting memory-glove emerging from a shell imitating Oosar, as a character once seen mad becomes sane, imprisoned, now free. Later, a tortuously conveyed Geometry of Ascent, where main characters become spear-carriers and vice versa, where suspects become innocent and vice versa.. The ultimate Theory of miscegenate Means and Ends, one justifying the other, linearly or retrocausally. Gargantuan vehicles, and dreams that can rip you bodily. Following actors in some memory dream as they wade through religio-dynastic treacle.

    • A fresh morning, and before reading further in this remarkable novel, I will say that it is EITHER a truly significant work of ground-breaking, welcomingly resistant SF plot work OR something that needs its valve-system of multi-characters and diffuse pragmatic and spiritual intentions draining. It has engaging prose and a truly visualisable genius loci, so I trust it is the former. But I suspect that I will not truly know even when I have finished it. Like its own conceit of a memory dream, I need to stay in the dream as long as possible so as to transcend its challenges and seek its solution.

  13. TWENTY ONE
    “A precaution. I theorised there was a seventy nine percent chance Oosar would fall foul of defilement during this festival, despite my dismantling of both means of entry.”

    I have earlier mentioned in this review my coincidentally concurrent review of another book here, but not before today had I noticed the resonance with its first story ‘The Memory Palace’, i.e. not till I read about the ‘blueprint from memory’ in this chapter, and then all manner of clinging fingers went between them, during the Ascension now by Sol and Roanne of the Oosar Trophy, and the other interweaving of insidiously conspiratorial factors panning out down beneath Oosar in ever-increasing resistance to expectations, as if the whole real world we know including its fiction and make-believe creates a single vast ‘memory palace’ or Trophy. Somehow the word coined in this chapter, “infantsenile’, brings us nearer to the truth. And the concept of ‘Alonetime’?
    In many ways, ‘The Master of Clouds’ (the title of which I have yet to fathom beyond my first mention of the Internet ‘Cloud’ that possibly came into being after this novel was written?) is a naive novel with child-like references to beasts of burden with a made-up word like ‘ganapti’ and a currency of ‘Tokens’ but it is also a highly mature work where nothing seems made-up. No mean feat. Still, I have not yet finished reading it…

  14. TWENTY TWO, TWENTY THREE
    “The truth lies beyond one of these seals!”
    I am either awestruck in a good way or overwhelmed in a slightly less good way. These passages and events are really becoming very powerful, beautifully evoked in many places, swashbucklingly suspenseful chases over high places like a Hitchcock film climax with arrows, ruthless and blood-curdling machinations, strangers even stranger than that word implies or even more divine, and spear-carriers now revivified, and much more. The nearest comparison would be ‘The Dark Tower’ series, I guess, but even that gives you no idea. I think one source of my possibly being overwhelmed rather than awestruck is the electronic text upon which I find it difficult to gain reading traction or purchase. But despite this, I can recognise a significant work, a flawed masterpiece, so far. (My most recent blog about ebooks and realbooks here.)

  15. TWENTY FOUR, TWENTY FIVE
    ““Absolute gibberish,” said Hulneb, wishing he still had his father’s pipe to puff a cloud of smoke with.”
    I, too, can’t believe the book’s own self-parody or its decoy diversion from its fictional truth as we enter Flash Gordon or Star Trek scenes, Whovian regenerations, ‘mad scientist’ genetic engineering … but I can forgive all with the absolutely stunning ‘calibration’ section and its Regulator, a blend of ‘Brave New World’ (cf Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and Canetti’s ‘Crowds and Power’ and ‘Auto da Fe’. (Thinking about it, that Shakespeare and those two Canetti works may be very significant in the light of The Master of Clouds). All this stemming from the ultimate Brutalist architecture: “The gentle sloping wooden roof gave the building the character of bullied oppression, as if it were hiding in the shadows created by the buildings on either side, ashamed of its unadorned ugliness.” I am 79% certain that this book is indeed more than what it seems, more than a limp Wizard of Oz behind the screen. Truth or Fantasy? Religion or Science?

  16. TWENTY SIX, TWENTY SEVEN
    “A dactylogram glared at him within the pattern of the fallen blocks, unashamedly left within the system by its long dead author. Sloppy workmanship he decided.”
    This is an amazing end that, if sloppy, actually benefits from such raw naive fantasy, maturely, by such means, conveying (from Alfred Hitchcock earlier to Cecil B. de Mille now) a sheer apocalyptic power of a Noah’s Ark ‘Red Sea’ Diaspora Exodus of Ethical or Ethnic Cleansing. A Norman Spinrad type battle for the soul of the book. And a renamed Oosar that becomes a craft that moulds that upon which it floats as much as that which floats it also moulds it in return. Any ‘nanocancer’ notwithstanding, this Machiavellian Peripheral-Vision works by averting your eyes from any necessary flaws towards the text’s trophies that crowd in from every point of its amoral compass. One spin off being a unique internal view of your own identity forming like that from within an emerging Frankenstein Whovianism. In all, a Grand Event.

    “You said it yourself, you’re still as much a Theorist as you were before, eager for the truth…”

    “…intumescence of a counterfeit tide…”

    “…go insane trying to remember how to comb your hair.”

    “Parthenogenesis complete.”

    end

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