In a richly imaginative tale, perfect for both boys and girls as they launch themselves into the world of fiction as independent readers, Alex Shearer creates a Dahl-esque fantasy that roams through realms of magic, wonder, and adventure.
In a world where water is scarce and deadly jellyfish swim through the sky, overprotected Christien dreams of excitement, adventure, and even a bit of danger. When he meets the exotic and alluring Jenine and her family of cloud hunters, he becomes determined to fulfill his dreams and see what this nomadic tribe of people is all about.
Set apart from society with their darker, heavily tattooed skin and distinctive facial scars, the cloud hunters have fascinated Christien for years—and he is only too eager to join Jenine on their sky ship. But this is no ordinary cloud hunting trip—Christien finds that he’s been brought along to help rescue Jenine’s father, who’s being held prisoner on the Forbidden Isles. Will their elaborate rescue plan succeed? Will Christien take up the cloud hunters’ offer to become one of them—scars and all? Or will Christien find that there is something even more important to him than adventure in the high skies?
“A creative and fascinating idea, well-written with interesting characters and scenery.” —The Guardian
“A thrilling and thought provoking adventure fantasy set in a world without water.” —Julia Eccleshare, LoveReading4Kids
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|Age Range:||7 - 12 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In the middle of the second semester, a new student arrived at school. Her name was Jenine, and she had two scars on her face running from under her eyes to just above her mouth. They weren't scars from an accident or scars she had been born with or scars from an attack. They were ornamental. They were the scars of ritual and tradition. And they marked her as a wanderer, as a nomad; an immigrant of unknown origin; and by tradition such people were Cloud Hunters.
Her family's ship had turned up one day and moored in the harbor. Jenine's father had died — lost in a storm, the rumor said — and her mother commanded the sky-boat now; though, in truth, there wasn't much to take charge of.
The boat was not large and there was a crew of one, a man so deeply tanned that his skin was almost black. His name was Kaneesh. His ears were studded with rings and he had a single-band tattoo, which went all the way around his arm, like a bracelet. His head was shaved, and his chest was hairless, and he always seemed to glisten, as if he had anointed himself with oil.
Jenine's mother was named Carla, and she, like her daughter and like Kaneesh, had two scars running down toward her mouth. Her hair was jet black and she wore it long and thick, often tied back in a band. She was tall and slim, and she looked like a warrior — even when she came to the parents' evenings. She seemed very exotic and the perfume she used smelled strange and unusual. My mother said it was musk. She said it had been taken from the glands of a dead sky-whale, which I thought rather cruel and bizarre — and somehow intriguing.
Every morning, Carla and Kaneesh would set sail, and every evening they would return. Sometimes the catch had been good; sometimes bad, and they would come back empty-handed, with nothing in the hold.
If they had several bad days in a row, they would journey farther afield, which meant that they might not return for a week or more. Carla would then pay somebody to look after Jenine and to give her board and lodging so that she would not have to miss school.
She wanted her daughter to have an education. For it's one thing to be a Cloud Hunter because you want to be; it's another thing to be a Cloud Hunter because you have no choice and are qualified for nothing else. Yet, even then, your very looks are against you.
On the weekends, when there was no school, their boat would leave port on Friday afternoon and not return until late on Sunday, or even early on Monday morning, and Jenine would just be in time for the first lesson. If you asked her what she had done, the answer was always the same.
"We were cloud hunting."
"You find many?"
"Some. What did you do?"
Well, a whole variety of things. But none of them ever seemed as good, as interesting, or as exciting as gliding through mile after mile of clear blue sky, chasing the wisps of distant vapor, speeding towards the faraway patches of cloud, trying to get there before anyone else did, and then coming home with the tanks full of water to sell.
Nothing could compare to that. Not in my eyes. I wanted to go with them, but was afraid to ask, knowing that even if I did ask, I would be refused. Or, if I wasn't refused by them, then my parents wouldn't allow me to go.
Yet it wasn't that I lacked the courage to make the journey.
I just lacked the courage to ask to go on it.
It's strange how sometimes it is easier to act than to speak. You'd think it would be the other way around.
* * *
Now boys and girls are supposedly different from each other in many more ways than the obvious. And as much as boys may spend a lot of time thinking about girls when they get to a certain age — and vice versa — the fact is that they do not much hang out together. At least not until. Until they do, that is. But that was an "until" that was still a while away.
But in some ways Jenine was like a boy: in the way she thought and the way she acted; so it wasn't so difficult to get to know her. Maybe I even thought that I could capture her, the way her mother's boat captured the clouds, and then I would have the essence of her, possessed and distilled. I thought it would be like chemistry, when you reduce some solution to a mere few droplets and you can hold it in a bottle with a stopper on the top or in a test tube.
Well, if I did think that, I thought wrong. You can't capture a person that way or change them from cloud to water. But you can make a friend of them simply by letting them be and by allowing them to know that you make no claims on them. Then, there you have it — the cloud in your hand — and as long as you don't try to close your fist and your fingers around it, you can keep it; it's yours. But if you do try to hold it, it just slips from your grasp.
I didn't mind the teasing or if the others said she was my girlfriend, which she wasn't; she was just a friend who happened to be a girl. I didn't overdo it either or spend too much time talking to her or make an obvious point of it. I was just friendly, that was all; I was just keeping a friendship warm, just waiting, biding my time, and then one day I would find the courage to ask the question. And with luck, the answer would be yes.
Although now, when I look back, I realize that I had far more than one question to ask.CHAPTER 2
Sometimes I would see the Cloud Hunters leave port in the cool breath of early morning. It was hard for me to make my steps continue on their way to school after that. They were all I could see, all I could think of. And to me, right there, right then, there could be no finer life, no greater excitement, than to be sailing aloft in search of the great, soft cotton wool clouds.
But I was just a school student, and my father and mother were administrators and office workers. They wore fashionable clothes and suits and kept regular hours. They could never have been Cloud Hunters in a million years. For the Cloud Hunters were like gypsies and renegades, with earrings and jewels, hennaed hands and tattoos, bracelets and bands of gold, and with dark, mysterious looks.
They were outcasts and adventurers, and I longed to be one of them, the way that a volunteer, knowing nothing of war, might long to be a soldier. The reality of war, its pain and fear, its terror and discomfort and deprivation meant nothing. All the naive onlooker and would be recruit could perceive was war's romance.
Yes, I wanted to go with them, wanted to fly away, to chase the clouds, to sail above the sun and into the far reaches of the upper air.
I knew I would never get to go, never, not in a week or a month or a year of Sundays, or any days at all.
But then my chance came and I took it, and just for a little while I became a Cloud Hunter too.
So that was what happened.
That was my good luck.
And this is my story.CHAPTER 3
My father worked for a merchant shipping company: a sky-trader. There are so many islands here, and their produce so diverse, that there is a constant shuffling of goods between one isle and another.
The trading boats are vast affairs: huge, flat container sky-ships, hundreds of feet long. Or sometimes the cargos are transported in great barges one tied to the next, all pulled along in convoy by a tugboat at the front. There are usually a few security outriders too, who patrol up and down along by the barges, making sure that nobody tries to steal anything. There's always the danger of piracy on the high skies. The great container ships and barges ride on the solar wind in a ponderous, stately fashion, making slow but sure progress, lumbering along like pods of sky-whales.
As well as watching out for pirates and hijackers, the patrols have to keep the hulls of the boats free from sky-lice and sky-riders. Sky-riders are small, cat-sized, whiskery creatures with squashed-looking faces and smooth coats, parasites in their own way, that travel by clinging onto the undersides of the boats. They can fly under their own steam when they want to, but mostly they don't. They prefer to travel under your steam instead of their own. They're basically bone idle, and all they want in life is a free ride.
For the most part, they're harmless, or at least they are when it's only four or five of them. But one follows another — as they like to be sociable — and soon, if you're not careful, the whole hull of a boat can be covered in sky-riders, all holding on tight with the suckers on their feet. Soon you've got a colony of them and they're weighing the boat down.
Even one of the great barges can start to sink in the sky if too many freeloaders latch onto it. Then, as it falls, it will pull the other barges with it until they all lose buoyancy and suddenly plummet toward the fire of the sun beneath. Then it's too late. Even if the sky-riders abandon the hull to save themselves, the boats go on plunging down under their gathered momentum. Whole cargoes and many lives have been lost that way.
So the outriders constantly patrol the barges on small craft. They keep the sky-riders moving with prods and kicks (for they're thick-skinned and it doesn't do to be too gentle with them) and they try not to let them settle. It's an interminable job at first — you swat them, they come back; you swat them again, they come back again. But once you are out in the Main Drift and far from land, the sky-riders are fewer and you're safe until you approach the islands again.
The strange thing is that on land sky-riders are often treated as favored pets. You find them in people's kitchens, snuggled up in a basket and chewing on tidbits, or sitting on their owner's knee. My own grandmother had one. She used to call it Sky-Puss and let it sleep by the window, next to her knitting. But it wasn't much use for anything. If it ever saw a sky-rat, it just stared at it and watched it fly by. It never bothered chasing it. It was simply too much trouble.
Our whole world here thrives on trade. One island grows fruit; another makes machinery. And although most islands are more or less self-sufficient, no single place can produce everything it requires. So there is always travel and great caravans of traders crossing the sky, moving like nomads across a vast desert waste.
And then there's water. Water is wealth, and water is prosperity; water is influence; water is power; and water is politics. It's like oil used to be in the old world, so the history books say. Some countries had oil and some did not, and those that did could control the price or trade oil for concessions and favors. Wars were fought over oil, and have been fought here over water too. The richest people in the system are not the ones with the most land; they are the ones who own rivers and reservoirs.
Those islands without natural water sources, or without the wherewithal to collect water for themselves, rely on Cloud Hunters to bring it to them for both drinking and irrigation. Without this source of supply, many would perish.
There is never a shortage of customers, only ever a shortage of clouds.
I asked Jenine to bring me in some cloud water one day. I wanted to taste it. So she did. They had harvested it just that weekend. It was cool and sweet. You could almost taste the distance in it, taste the adventure of finding it, taste the journey, taste the romance. I told her so, but she said I was crazy and that all it tasted of was ordinary water — which isn't much of a taste at all. She said the taste wasn't in the water; it was in my head.
But it didn't seem that way to me.CHAPTER 4
But a Cloud Hunter's life is not always easy. Sometimes there are long, cloudless weeks and prolonged drought. The vapor doesn't seem to rise and the clouds don't form, and the Cloud Hunters can trek for days on end and see nothing but perpetual blue. Great for your holidays, not so good when you're trying to make a living.
Yet, eventually, if you travel far and long enough, there is always, finally, the haze of herringbone in the distance or the dense puffballs of dandelion white just waiting to be harvested and turned into water.
There are times, too, so Jenine told me, when the cloud in the sky is so dense it is like fog. You cannot see where you are going and must navigate on instruments alone. The tanks are soon full of condensed vapor then; your clothes grow damp; your shirt sticks to your back. You fill the auxiliary tanks and wish you had storage for more. Instead of hiding the location of your precious treasure from other Cloud Hunters, you trigger the beacon and radio out a signal to let them know that there is plenty here for everyone, which would otherwise go to waste.
Then you sail for home, your ship almost sinking in the sky like a swollen balloon, a blister near to bursting. It never ceases to amaze me, the way white clouds turn to clear water and how the insubstantial turns to substance.
There are several different varieties and purities of water too: some to wash with, some to cook with, some only to drink. The latter is sometimes treated like rare, fine wine and kept bottled in the cellar for special occasions. Connoisseurs sip it and roll it around their tongues, talking of "good textures" and "outstanding harvests" and "vintage years." So water isn't just water, not to some people — even if Jenine thought it was.
Now in the old days, in the old world, people used to go hunting for whales. (Real sea whales, not like the sky-whales here.) There was always a lookout then, perched up at the top of the ship's mast in the crow's nest, scanning the horizon with his hand shielding his eyes and a telescope at the ready. When he saw the spume of foam from a surfacing whale, he'd shout: "There she blows!" And the captain would turn the ship around and they would set off in pursuit.
With Cloud Hunters it's the same. On every boat there's someone called a tracker whose job it is to sense where the clouds are forming and to decide in which direction to travel. Even when the sky is blue and cloudless in all directions for as far as the eye can see, the tracker knows where to go.
It's a bit of science and a bit of an art — with a little dash of intuition thrown in. Some maintain that it's an instinct or a psychic power. But whatever it is, a good tracker has it and can sense the formation of clouds as much as four or five days' traveling away. And the captain will always go with the tracker and point the ship in the direction he says — though you can never know for certain that the clouds will be there. You can only believe. And hope. And sometimes doubt.
For it takes some nerve and courage to journey on into the empty blue, your own water supplies getting lower, and with not a wisp of a cloud in sight. But on you go, sailing on the solar wind. Maybe a breeze blows up too; so you open the wind sails to catch the uplift and speed on into the void. You pass islands, some above you, some beneath. Some are close enough for you to be in their shadow; others are far below, in regions to which you never venture. There are different, hotter lands down there with different kinds of people in them. If you went on descending, you would eventually come to islands so blisteringly hot that nothing human lives there, just plants and reptiles and the sky-fish of the deep with skin like cooked leather. Or so people say. Only, if nothing human can live down there, how would anything human know?
Perhaps, as you sail on, a shoal of sky-fish passes. If you throw a line over the side, baited with a juicy insect or two, you can catch a meal; if you throw a net over, you'll catch a feast.
Or maybe a sky-jelly will come into view, drifting on the air, almost transparent, a great bulbous mass of pulsating veins. Its tendrils trail underneath it, stretching down for hundreds of feet. As long as it's not one of the poisonous varieties, you can haul it in and cook it. Sky-jellies are mostly water. They may not sound too appetizing, but you'll devour them when you're hungry and thirsty enough.
No, a cloud-hunting boat is nothing without a tracker. Sometimes they're referred to as "divines" because that is what they do: They divine where the water is, or where the clouds are going to be, or are most likely to form. People used to do this once with hazel twigs to search for wells in droughts and deserts. Hold the Y-shaped twig lightly in your hands; when it swivels and points down, dig at that spot — and there's your water.
Sometimes a tracker's only command is to stay put. They sense that this is the place to be. No need to search for clouds now; they will come to you. So you close the solar panels, reel in the wind sails, and set the satellite anchor to keep you in position.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cloud Hunters"
Copyright © 2012 Alex Shearer.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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