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Cloud Cuckoo Land

by Anthony Doeer

Thirteen-year-old Anna, an orphan, lives inside the formidable walls of Constantinople in a house of women who make their living embroidering the robes of priests. Restless, insatiably curious, Anna learns to read, and in this ancient city, famous for its libraries, she finds a book, the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. This she reads to her ailing sister as the walls of the only place she has known are bombarded in the great siege of Constantinople. Outside the walls is Omeir, a village boy, miles from home, conscripted with his beloved oxen into the invading army. His path and Anna’s will cross.


Five hundred years later, in a library in Idaho, octogenarian Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war, rehearses five children in a play adaptation of Aethon’s story, preserved against all odds through centuries. Tucked among the library shelves is a bomb, planted by a troubled, idealistic teenager, Seymour. This is another siege. And in a not-so-distant future, on the interstellar ship Argos, Konstance is alone in a vault, copying on scraps of sacking the story of Aethon, told to her by her father. She has never set foot on our planet.


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Plot Summary

The book opens with one of our five protagonists,  fourteen year old Konstance.  She is all alone in a metal room except for an AI named Sybil.  Sybil wants Konstance to eat but instead she is spending her time putting together a puzzle she made which contains the story Cloud Cuckoo Land. She’s been in that room for almost a year though at this point it’s not clear why she’s there or where she is.

Next we meet Zeno who is an old man and he is taking five fifth graders to the public library where he has constructed the set for the play of Cloud Cuckoo Land that they are going to put on the following night.  They are there for their final dress rehearsal. 


Meanwhile, a young man named Seymour is waiting in his car with a homemade bomb in his backpack and a plan to hide it in the library, wait for the library to close and then remote detonate it. While waiting for the library to empty though, he falls asleep and doesn’t see Zeno or the children enter the building.  So when he sees one of the librarians leave, he goes in and hides the bomb on one of the shelves in the back. The children’s librarian is still there and tries to return the backpack to him, thinking he just left it behind? So, Seymour pulls a gun from his pocket and shoots him.


In Constantinople (YEAR), an 8 year old orphan named Anna lives in a convent with her sister Maria. She spends her days endlessly embroidering but dreams of a place she saw in a painting across town of a sparkling city in the clouds.  Meanwhile, just outside Constantinople, a baby boy named Omeir is born with a cleft lip and then on the same night his father dies. His grandfather attempts to leave him on the side of a mountain but can’t bring himself to do it and so the village forces them out, saying the baby is a demon and the family must leave everything behind. 


Anna meets a tutor and he teaches her how to read in return for food and wine that she steals from the convent. Before he dies, he gives her three booklets of text which she hides in her room. But one day the director of the orphanage/embroidery shop finds them, accuses Maria, Anna’s sister, for all the stolen stuff and of witchcraft. He drags her to the fire by her hair and makes her watch them burn. 


Omeir and his family make a home somewhere else but the judgement and fear follows him anyways. One day, after the sultan has died and his son has taken his place, a bunch of soldiers show up to their house on their way to seize Constantinople. They are collecting men along the way and when they see Omeir’s twin oxen, they want to take them. But the oxen will only follow Omeir so he must go too. 


In Idaho in the 1940s, Zeno is a small boy living in a cabin with his father.  It’s winter, it’s cold and they have next to nothing. One day, Zeno comes across the public library and inside he finds two librarians and they invite him in, warm him by the fire and read him Greek myths. Later his father starts seeing a woman in town named Mrs. Boydstun and when Pearl Harbor is bombed, his father enlists and leaves Zeno with her. When his father dies in the war, Zeno stays with Mrs. Boydstun.  One day, the librarians share a bok with him that makes him realize that he’s gay and he’s so ashamed that he stops going to the library and when the Korean war starts, he enlists just as his father did. 


Seymour has always lived with just his mom and she tries to take care of him but she has to work a lot to make ends meet as a single mother.  He is obviously neurodiverse but it’s the early 2000s and they live in the united states without health insurance so that is not a diagnosis he’s gonna get. He spends a lot of time alone from a young age and even though he’s not supposed to, he goes off into the woods where he befriends an owl and really connects with the land.  


We learn that Konstance lives on a spaceship called the Argos because Earth has become uninhabitable and so the ship is on a long journey to another planet that is supposed to be inhabitable.  Konstance’s father is in charge of one of the farms on the ship and she goes there often and he teaches her about plants and tells her the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land. 


In the library, Seymour hides the bomb again and tries to escape but the police have shown up so he barricades the door. Upstairs, Zeno heard the gunshots and knows something is going on but he and the children haven’t been discovered yet so he acts as though everything is okay so that they don’t get scared.


In Constantinople, Anna’s sister Maria begins to lose her sight.  She hit her head when the master accused her of stealing and she hasn’t been well since then. Anna hears of a place where she can pay for Maria to drink holy water from a shrine and it could heal her. The problem is that Anna has no money to pay but she feels guilty enough that she knows she needs to find a way to help her. She meets a boy who knows she’s been stealing chickens and selling them. He suggests a plan where they rob a priory at the edge of the city that Is supposed to be full of treasure but after a lot of work to get there, the place is long abandoned, dank and emptied. Anna does find a library though and she stuffs her sack with as many books as she can. Most of them turn out to be completely ruined but one isn’t and when they try to sell it to some foreigners, it turns out to be pretty valuable. 


Omeir is travelling with the soldiers. They build a gigantic cannon and now they have to get the cannon along with everything else they need for war to the city.. The canon is huge, hard to move and the journey is hard. Omeir, though, feels for the first time in his life that he belongs somewhere. That’s he accepted as he is. That he has a purpose. 


With the money from the book she found inthe priory, Anna takes Maria to the spring to drink the holy water and she does feel better for a couple of days but then feels worse. Anna keeps returning to the priory to steal more books to sell but they find nothing of use to them.  She also takes Maria back to the spring and after drinking more of the holy water, she feels better for one day before feeling a lot worse. This cycle continues, Maria never getting any better. Then rumours start that the new sultan has gathered men and is going to attack the city and people begin to flee - well the rich people flee. The man who is master to the embroiderers - where Anna and Maria live- also flees and leaves them there alone with nothing. 


In Korea, Zeno is taken prisoner and sent to a Chinese war camp. While there, he meets another prisoner named Rex. Zeno and a friend found Rex in a box, basically like a coffin, where he had been locked for two weeks for trying to escape. They become really close and Rex teaches Zeno Ancient Greek. 


It’s Konstance’s tenth birthday which means that it’s her library day. She gets a little bit of a party before she is given a set up in her compartment that consists of a work suit, a perambulator - basically a treadmill - and a Vizer which sounds like a VR type device. She puts it all on and finds herself in a huge atrium filled with walls of bookshelves that seem to go on for miles. There are other people in there and books are flying to and from shelves. 


It has all the usual features of a library - the history section, languages, art. But there is also a table with a brass slot that says “questions answered here”.  All you have to do is write a question, put it in the slot and then a book floats down from the shelves to reveal the answer. Here she learns that that the mission to relocate the people on the ship to another planet is going to take almost 600 years. The children on the ship all think that they will one day be the first ones in a long time to step outside and breathe fresh air but on their library day, they find out the truth. It will not be them. 


The books in the library are meant to help them cope with that news and go on with life with that knowledge. Konstance is shown an atlas but instead of just looking at maps as we would. She asks it to show her a place on Earth and then is transported there to see what it was like during a snapshot of time. 


Outside The walls of Constantinople, the soldiers are camped and waiting to storm the city - Anna compares it to the Trojan war. She has been helping, along with everyone else, reinforce the wall protecting the city. On the last trip to the priory, she filled her bag with old wet books, but she has no one to sell them to anymore so she just hides them in her room. One of them is Cloud Cuckoo Land. 


The land around Seymour and his mom’s trailer is being developed into luxury townhouses and Seymour is really upset about it, especially when they tear down the area and the tree where he would visit his owl friend. He still looks for the owl but doesn’t see him for a long time, until one day he is walking home from school and he finds the severed wing of an owl on the road.  He knows that the owls are rare and that it has to be his owl. He takes it home and buries it but he is mad and he feels like someone has to pay.  The trailer they live in belonged to a family member who died and he finds in their shed guns, amo, and grenades. After watching videos on how to use the grenades, he plans on blowing up one of the townhouses but ends up being too scared to go through with it. 


On the Argos, a boy named Ezekiel gets really sick and pukes everywhere. Because it is such a controlled environment, this does not happen, ever. So, everyone is told to go back to their own compartment to quarantine until it’s figured out. The first level of quarantine lasts seven days. Sybil is trying to figure out what’s wrong with the boy but she can’t and when it gets worse, the second level of quarantine is initiated which lasts for two months.  


Rex creates a plan for him and Zeno to escape the war camp. They are going to hide in some oil drums which are scheduled to be driven out of the camp. Zeno doesn’t want to do it because he is afraid that once they are free, Rex will go back to England and he will have to go back to the states. When Rex finally decides to do it, he tells Zeno but when the time comes, Zeno doesn’t go to meet him and then Rex is gone. Zeno is questioned about his disappearance but Rex doesn’t return and no one mentions him again. Then, three weeks later, the prisoners are released and Zeno is sent home.  


The boy who first puked on the Argos, Ezekial, has died and then so did everyone who was in contact with him - 21 people. No one can understand how something contagious got on board of a ship that has been sealed away from everything for over sixty years. Everyone is trying to do research to find the answer, but there’s nothing. Then, Konstance returns from the library to find her mother gone, which is not a good thing during quarantine and her father sewing a suit made of a plastic curtain. When it’s done, he dresses her in it and breaks out of their compartment. He takes her to the vault where Sybil is, loads her up with a lot of supplies and then leaves her. She’s locked in. 


Back home from the war, Zeno moves back in with Mrs. Boydston and tries to rejoin society but after being a prisoner of war, it’s not easy. He takes a job driving a plow and tries to date some women. All the while though, he is looking for Rex. He writes letters to everyone he can think of that might have record of him and he writes to every man with his name in England but nothing. And then years later he finally gets a response from Rex himself. He is well and hopes Zeno will come to visit. 


Konstance is locked inside the vault with Sybil and she is confused and angry and scared. She calculates that she has enough food to live there for 6 years. When she goes to the library there is no one and soon she doesn’t know if there is anyone else alive on the ship at all.  After a few weeks, she gives up caring for herself so Sybil restricts her access to the library until she eats, cleans herself and does some schoolwork. When she does all that she goes hunting in the library for information about her father. She finds the application video he made for the mission where he talks of how amazing he is at growing plants with very little water. He was only 12 years old when he applied. She then searches the Atlas for the farm her father grew up on in Australia. When she goes to his town, it’s different from the other places she’s visited. There are no people and all the plants are dead. She finds her fathers farm and is able to see just the corner of a boys room through one of the windows and in the windowsill is a book. Cloud Cuckoo Land and the cover says that it was translated by Zeno. 


Omeir and Anna, on opposite sides of the war, are both waiting for the final siege to happen. Omeir’s oxen die. Anna’s sister dies. Right before the city is invaded, one of the embroiderers that have stayed with Anna cuts all her hair off to disguise her from the men. And then, she and the rest of the women who live there poison themselves before they can be taken. Anna escapes the city by boat as Omeir decides to just walk away from it all. No one notices. No one stops him. 


Back in 1971, Zeno travels to London to meet Rex and Hillary. When he arrives, he’s surprised to find that Hillary is a very flamboyant man and not the matronly beard that he was expecting. He spends eight days with them but is disappointed and heartbroken and feels very out of place.  Rex is a teacher but he also searches for lost stories and he wrote a book about it. When it’s time for Zeno to go home, Rex gives him a copy of his book and a Greek-English Lexicon in case he wanted to try translating again as he had shown a talent for it while they were in Korea. 


At school Seymour starts an environmental awareness club and that goes pretty well but it’s not really enough. He wants bigger change than switching to bamboo cutlery instead of plastic in the cafeteria. So, he somehow gets involved with an extremist group that he finds online? He connects with their videos and their message and contacts them. Through a messaging app they make him feel important and give him the instructions on how to make the pressure cooker bombs and tell him that once he proves himself by completing a task, he can go live with them and their group. He decides that his task will be to blow up the real estate office of the company that is developing the land around his house. 


Konstance is trying to find information on Zeno and she finds out mostly everything we know about him - he lived in Idaho, he fought in Korea, worked as a snow plow driver. She also learns that he died protecting children from a terrorist at a library. She wants to know why her father had a book translated by this man when nothing seems to point to Zeno doing anything like this. She finds that she likes the idea of knowing things that Sybil doesn’t so instead of making notes virtually in the library, she finds a way to make ink and starts making notes about Zeno and Cloud Cuckoo Land on scraps of anything she can find in the vault. 


After returning to Idaho after visiting Rex, Zeno practices using the lexicon paired with the Greek that Rex taught him in Korea to start translating The Iliad. He writes often to Rex until he gets word that Rex died of a heart attack in Egypt. Eventually, after taking care of her for so long,  Mrs.Boydstun also dies. Zeno learns of an old book in Ancient Greek that was recovered but it was so damaged that the pages had completely fused together.  Luckily, technology was able to help salvage some and the pages were being uploaded to the internet. Zeno starts spending all of his time at the library translating what he can. One day, it is so hot that the library is full of children escaping the heat and the librarian asks him to help her. So, he tells the children about the story he’s translating. 


Konstance is still trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Trying to figure out how Zeno could possibly be connected to her father. She looks up the names of the children that Zeno saved that day in the library and finds the name of her grandmother on it.  That’s why her father would have a copy of that book. She starts to notice that something isn’t right in the atlas. She’s noticed it a few times. Places where everything looked kind of artificial or too perfect. In the area where Zeno’s library used to be, the original book drop that was made into the shape of an owl still remained. When Konstance went to touch it, instead of passing through it like she should have, it was solid and when she touched it it started to snow. She travels to the other places where she thought that something wasn’t right and at each of these places, she finds an owl of some sort and when she touches it, the real world is revealed and it is terrible. Famine, war, flooding, death everywhere. This is why her father wanted to join the Argos mission. 


She tries to do research on the Argos and the mission but keeps coming to dead ends. Anytime someone tried to question anything about the mission, the rest of the document would be erased. So she asks the library for the name of the place where the crew of the Argos was gathered before launch and she goes there. She searches everywhere until she finds the owl and when she touches it, the landscape changes revealing a kind of compound with a ton of construction equipment and in the middle, the Argos being built.  But according to everything she read, it was supposed to be built in space. So what was it doing on earth?? 


Anna finds Omeir’s camp and thinking she was the enemy, he hits her over the head. Eventually he realizes that she is just a young Greek girl and though they do not speak the same language, he convinces her that he is also not the enemy and she walks with him. They walk all the way back to Omeir’s home where they live together with Omeir’s family.  Eventually they have 6 sons.  One of them comes down with a fever and they are afraid he’s also going to die. They have been hiding Anna's big book in a tree for years and Omeir gets it, convinced that it will cure their son. Anna reads the story and their son recovers. Eventually Anna dies and the boys move out. Omeir takes the book and travels back to Constantinople to return it. 


Konstance is sure that the Argos never left earth and that instead, the entire thing was just a study - “an intergenerational feasibility experiment.” So, she makes a plan to escape. First, she binds the book she made of Zenos translations with some twine she makes so she can take it with her. Then, she makes a homemade ax. Then she takes the power cord from her food printer and exposes the wires. She then attaches them to the legs of her bed and then sticks them in water and collects the pure oxygen into an upside down cup. Then she rubs the wires together, creates a spark and lights some balled up hair on fire in the cup. She’s hiding under her bed wearing a plastic suit and the fire grows. Sybil is yelling at Konstance to stop the entire time but the room is so full of smoke that she has no choice but to open the doors and let Konstance out. Then, Konstance finds a spot where she was told another passenger went crazy and tried to break his way out of the Argos. She’s been told that if she leaves, she'll be sucked out, frozen solid etc. she uses her homemade ax to break through the metal wall of the ship. She makes it outside and she is just outside on earth. It’s raining. It’s night time. She’s by the sea. 


In the library, Zeno goes down and talks to Seymour. He convinces him to let him call an ambulance for the shot librarian. Seymour confesses that the bombs are set to explode on the fifth ring if someone calls the phone number they are attached to and someone else other than him has the phone number. When the phones starts to ring, Zeno grabs the backpack with the bombs and runs out of the library, away from everyone until the fifth ring. 


Seymour gets sent to jail for kidnapping, possession of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder. He gets sentenced to 40 years to life. While there he begins working for the company responsible for the atlas. He is tasked to go through the atlas and clean up any unsavoury images. He also requests the papers that Zeno was always working on. Marian, one of the librarians, sends him everything. 


Later when he’s released and still working for the company, he uses all his knowledge to go into the atlas and makes some changes of his own. He leaves clues in the shape of owls and when they are touched, it shows the true picture of what happened the day the photo was taken.  Now he’s old and he invites the five children and their families on a vacation. At the end he apologizes for what he did and gives them a properly published copy of Zenos Translation of CCL and also shows them something in the atlas. As a gift to them, they can go in, touch the owl and be transported back to the old Library that day, the way it should have been if he hadn't shown up. 


Konstance now lives in the village the Argos was and has children and she reads them the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land that she made while inside. 

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