Cloud Atlas is an ambitious book. It tells six stories spanning what is probably close to four centuries across almost as many continents and vastly differing narrative styles. On top of this, each successive story is contained within the previous one, and you start all six before you finish any of them, and then finish them each in reverse order. It is certainly a complex, intriguing way to tell stories.
But ambition must be matched by achievement, and my four-word review of Cloud Atlas has been "Good, but not great." And that's what it is - it's a good read, and certainly enjoyable. But it aimed for a lot, and I didn't feel like it quite made it there. The six stories were loosely tied together, but they seldom felt unified or really connected, and more often felt like Mitchell realized in the last few pages that he hadn't mentioned the previous story yet. One of the most maddening things about this book is that Mitchell frequently hints at some larger connection, some overarching, supernatural, supertemporal link between the protagonists, where "hinting" occasionally borders on flashing neon signs, but fails to actually do anything about it. At the end of the book, one is left wondering what the point of stringing all these stories together was, other than being able to put six books together in a mammoth 500-page tome and call it an ambitions, puzzley book.
It also feels like the point may have been just that. The stories, in and of themselves, are hit-and-miss as to whether they could stand up on their own. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery was an engrossing, if not terribly innovative, thriller/mystery, and An Orison of Somni-451 was a well-crafted, if not terribly insightful, sci-fi/dystopia tale. And that's the problem with these stories - some of them could be much better on their own, without being forced to share a book with five other stories and have tenuous connections drawn between them. And I could almost take them as five separate stories of incidentally related figures throughout this history that isn't quite our own, except that Mitchell tries so hard to make it something more than that, and fails to actually do anything with it.
One strength Mitchell does have is in his voicing - writing six books set across four centuries and having them remain distinct and appropriate in speaker and tone is no small feat, but Mitchell does so skillfully. He deftly changes dialect and vocabulary as his subject demands, from a common 1800's accountant to a freethinking member of a psuedo-human android-ish future slave race. This skill, however, is too often marginalized by the overambition of trying to stuff too much story into not enough book, and the obligation of tying them closely together when really, some of them would be better of standing on their own.
Overall, it is a good book - the links Mitchell does draw between the stories are often interesting and make for a good story, but they would be better if he either tried harder to make them something more, or as I think I would prefer, just left them as incidental and not tried to make them more than they were - which is six lives in six different generations that overlapped each other, but only because Mitchell chose to tell his next story about someone that was affected by the protagonist in the current one. If one could ignore the overtures of something bigger happening, and not be too excited about the novelty of the story-in-story dynamic, this is an enjoyable series of short books, that tell often-interesting stories, but don't do much else, because they're too busy trying to be something more.
And in the interest of full disclosure, this review wasn't helped by the fact that I just finished [b:Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close|4588|Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close|Jonathan Safran Foer|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1165446871s/4588.jpg|1940137], which is a book that masterfully weaves together disparate storylines about interrelated generations across wide swaths of time (albeit not quite four centuries). Foer's narratives, instead of getting distracted by their interrelatedness and losing their purpose to it, instead are strengthened and illuminated by each other, and the interaction and relation of his stories creates a meaning much greater than the sum of the whole, instead of losing its meaning in an attempt to be something innovative. It doesn't have the sci-fi elements, and is certainly a very different book, but it and his previous book [b:Everything Is Illuminated|256566|Everything Is Illuminated|Jonathan Safran Foer|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1298482115s/256566.jpg|886727] are examples of disparate storylines that lend to and strengthen each other, and feel very purposeful and needed, instead of forced and put-on.
Cloud Atlas is an enjoyable read, but feels like it goes a little bit long. I'm not sure if it's totally worth the investment of 500 pages of time when there are much shorter books that achieve their goals better, but I don't think it's a waste of your time or energy. And I am certainly interested to see the upcoming movie - I think that much of it, at least, could lend itself well to film.