Book review and synopsis for Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, a story about storytelling in a tale that stretches across the past, present and future.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a book about a book, told through sets of characters in time periods in the past, present and future. An ancient Greek tale -- Aethon, an old shepherd in search of a "utopian city in the clouds" -- is what binds them all together.
Doerr's cast includes an orphan girl and farmer's boy in Constantinople in the 1400's, an environmental activist setting off a bomb in a library in 2020, and a girl on a mission to a distant planet in the not-so-distant future. In telling the story of their lives, we also see the journey of an ancient story through time. This is one for people who love books and storytelling.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummaryChapter-by-Chapter SummarySee the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of Cloud Cuckoo LandQuick Plot Summary
The four-paragraph version: Cloud Cuckoo Land is about a book and how it manages to survive across time. It follows three sets of characters in different time periods who all come across a (fictional) ancient Greek tale called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes.
In the 1400's in Constantinople, Anna is an orphan who finds a copy of Cloud Cuckoo Land in an abandoned priory library just before it is destroyed by Saracen forces. Meanwhile, Omeir is a boy who is forced to join the Saracen army. In present day (in 2020), Seymour is a 17-year-old environmental activist who tries to set off a bomb at the local library. Meanwhile, Zeno is an old man who is at the library afterhours, leading a group of kids in a rehearsal for a performance of Cloud Cuckoo Land. And sometime in the future, Konstance is a girl on Argos, an intergenerational ship that is on a 592-year-long journey with a mission to reach a distant planet. She ends up isolated after a plague kills everyone else on board.
Throughout the narrative, the contents of Cloud Cuckoo Land is interwoven in bits and pieces. It consists of 24 parts. The author claims he found the tale etched onto pieces of wood in an ancient tomb. It tells story of Aethon, a man who goes looking for a "utopian city in the sky" called Cloud Cuckoo Land. Along the way, he has many adventures (transformed into a donkey, captured, escapes, transformed into a fish, eaten by a sea creature, transformed into a crow, etc.) before he finally finds Cloud Cuckoo Land. He then has to decide whether to stay there or return home.
As the story progresses, we learn that Anna and Omeir end up fleeing Constantinople, meeting and building a life together. After Anna dies, Omeir deposits Anna's damaged-but-treasured book (Cloud Cuckoo Land) in the library of the ducal palace in Urbino. By 2019, the book's text is illegible, but new scanning technology recovers the text. A middle-aged Zeno translates it, and adapts it into a children's play. The children help Zeno to figure out that the tale ends with Aethon returning home to pass on his story (since the text is illegible toward the end). In 2020, when Seymour sets off his bomb while the kids are rehearsing, Zeno grabs the bomb and runs to an empty area to save the kids, killing himself. In 2057, a remorseful Seymour compiles Zeno's translation into a book and gives it to the kids that Zeno saved. In the future, Konstance's father tells her the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land (Konstance's grandmother was one of the children that Zeno saved). Konstance uses her time in isolation to find a virtual version of Zeno's Cloud Cuckoo Land translation and transcribe it. Later, when she learns Argos is merely an intergenerational experiment on Earth (and not a ship at all), she breaks out, taking her handwritten copy of the book with her. The book ends with her reading Cloud Cuckoo Land to her son in the year 2146.
In the Prologue and Chapters 1 - 2, the book introduces an array of characters from different time periods. In Mission Year 65 (in the future), Konstance is a young girl on the ship Argos, which left Earth 65 years ago on a mission to get to planet Beta Oph2. She has been in a circular cell (Vault One) with a machine called Sybil for nearly a year now. Around her are scraps of paper, some of which mention a Greek tale by Antonius Diogenes called Cloud Cuckoo Land. It's about a character named Aethon who goes on a journey to find a "utopian city in the sky" (the titular Cloud Cuckoo Land). Diogenes says he did not invent the story, but instead instead discovered it in an ancient tomb in Tyre, inscribed upon “twenty-four cypress-wood tablets”.
In 2020 in Lakeport, Idaho, Zeno Ninis is an octogenarian who brings a group of kids to the library afterhours, where they rehearse for an upcoming performance of Cloud Cuckoo Land (adapted as a play). At the same time downstairs, a 17-year-old boy named Seymour drops off a bomb in the library. He wants to blow up the office next door for Eden Reality (and doesn't about the kids upstairs). However, he's stopped by Sharif, one of the library staff.
In the 1400's in Constantinople, Anna is a young orphan girl, and she and her sister Maria work at a convent that serves as an embroidery house run by Master Kalaphates. Anna hates needlework. Instead, she convinces an old tutor nearby named Licinius to teach her to read Greek, and he gives her a few pages of Greek (from Homer's Odyssey) that he has. However, when Master Kalaphates finds the pages, he thinks they belong to Maria and beats her for it, giving Maria a severe head injury. He also burns the pages.
Meanwhile, 200 miles away from Constantinople, a infant boy named Omeir is born with a cleft palate, and on that night his father has an accident and dies. Omeir's family is driven out of the village since the villagers believe they boy is demonic and caused his father's death. Time passes. One day, a royal emissary and soldiers shows up at Omeir's family's home. They demand that Omeir (and his two bulls, Tree and Moonlight) report to capital at Edirne to join in the upcoming war efforts as part of the Saracen army.
In Chapters 3 - 4, the book flashes back to various characters' childhoods. Zeno's father died in WWII when he was young. After that, he was left in the care of his father's girlfriend, Mrs. Boydstun. It then describes Zeno's love of the library and the librarians reading Greek classics to him. At some point, Zeno realizes he's gay and feels ashamed about it. When he turns 17, Zeno enlists to fight in the Korean War. He gets captured by the Chinese (allied with the North Koreans). In the prisoner camp, he meets Rex Browning, a fellow prisoner with a love of Greek classics.
Meanwhile, Seymour grew up living in a motel with his mother Bunny. Seymour has behavioral problems at school due to an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder. When he's 6, they move into a double-wide that Bunny inherits, located on plot of land next to a forest. He eventually learns to cope with his disorder by wearing earmuffs and spending time alone in the forest. He bonds with a great gray owl he sees there which he names Trustyfriend (based on a owl character from a cartoon).
On the ship Argos (in the future), Konstance was born in Mission Year 51, and she grew up with her parents who are part of the 86-person population of the ship. Her father runs Farm 4, and he recites to her the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land. At school, the kids learn about Sybil, a machine that performs a wide range of tasks and contains the collective wisdom of the human species. Sybil's core is housed in Vault One. It requires going through a decontamination chamber to enter, and it has a separate thermal, mechanical and filtration system from the rest of the ship.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, excerpts. Interspersed within and throughout all the chapters are excerpts and various parts relaying bits and pieces of the story of Diogenes's Cloud Cuckoo Land. In these parts, it describes how Aethon drunkenly watches a performance of Aristophanes' play The Birds and ends up believing that Cloud Cuckoo Land is a real place in the clouds. Determined to find it, he heads for Thessaly, a land of Magic. On the way, he comes across the folklore worlds of many cultures. In Thessaly, he looks for a witch that can transform him into a bird. However, when he tries to copy a witch's transformation ritual, he gets turned into a donkey instead...
In Chapter 5, in present day, Seymour has shot Sharif, and the police have arrived outside at the library. Zeno hears the commotion downstairs.
In Chapters 6 - 9, the story then jumps to Constantinople in 1452. Maria continues to have headaches and is losing her sight due to her head injury. Anna is told that a blessing from the Church of Saint Mary of the Spring may be able to heal Maria (by letting her drink holy water), but it costs silver. Anna ends up stealing old manuscripts from an abandoned priory to sell to foreigners who are interested in antique manuscripts. She's able to buy multiple blessings, but they don't work (since holy water is just mercury mixed with water). Meanwhile, rumors abound that an attack on Constantinople is imminent. Just before the attack, Anna notices a goatskin codex that she retrieved from the priory. It turns out to contain Diogenes's tale, Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Around the same time, Omeir reluctantly travels to the capital as instructed, and his oxen haul coal to help build a huge cannon in preparation for war. Once the Saracen army is ready, they are all ordered to march to Constantinople. They reach the city walls the second week of April.
In 1952, Zeno is still in Korea spending as much time as he can with Rex. Rex comes up with an escape plan for then, but Zeno backs out at the last minute. He doesn't know what happens to Rex. Three weeks later, Zeno's release is negotiated, and he is sent back to the United States.
In 2014, Eden Reality starts construction in the area that Seymour lives in. They cut down the forest nearby. Seymour is enraged to find the dismembered wing of a great grey owl on the roadside. In sixth grade, the teacher is unaccommodating of Seymour's condition and refuses to allow Seymour to wear his earmuffs in class. When Seymour finally loses his temper, and Bunny takes him to a doctor to put him on medication.
In the future, in Mission Year 61, Konstance turns 10. She learns that it will take Argos 592 years to reach Beta Oph2, which means she is part of a "bridge generation" that will never see Beta Oph2. She is also introduced to she ship's library, assessible via a virtual reality device (Vizer). There, she can access the Atlas which contains a walkable, freeze-framed version of the entirety of Earth.
A few years later, in Mission Year 64, one of Konstance's classmates falls ill and dies from an unknown illness. The ship goes into Quarantine. News spreads that people are dying and experiencing symptoms. After Konstance's mother dies, her father puts Konstance in a makeshift biosuit, he forces their way out of the compartment, and then he takes Konstance plus a bunch of supplies to Vault One. Konstance is decontaminated along with her supplies and left in Vault One alone.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, excerpts. As Aethon's story continues, Aethon-the-donkey is told he needs to eat a fresh rose to undo the transformation. However, before he can, he is captured by bandits who use him to haul stolen goods to their hideout. From there, he's sold to a miller. Some parts of the story are lost, but at some point he leaves the miller and then manages to escape his next captors...
In Chapter 10, in present day, Seymour contacts someone named the "Bishop" for help. Upstairs, the kids knock over a few dozen root beer cans, and Seymour hears the noise.
In Chapters 11 - 14, in April 1453, the attack on Constantinople begins that turns into a lengthy siege. Anna starts reading to Maria the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land to distract her. Outside the city walls, Omeir's oxen both die from overexertion. At the end of May, Maria dies. Right before the final assault, Anna flees the city on a rowboat. Meanwhile, Omeir decides to abandon his post and heads home on foot.
In 1953, after Zeno returns from the war, he tries to locate Rex, writing to veterans organizations and anyone named Rex Browning in England. Finally, in December 1970 (17 years later), he gets a letter from Rex who says he only just received Zeno's letters (presumably, the bureau mislaid them for some time). Rex invites him to a birthday event in May. In May 1971, Zeno makes the trip to London. He meets Rex's partner Hillary. Zeno spends the week with Rex and Hillary. When Rex sends him off at the airport, Zeno is filled with regret and longing. Before they part, Rex reminds Zeno that he has a knack for translating and to keep working at his Greek.
In 2018, Seymour has grown into an ardent student environmentalist. He's angry about climate change and the way humans treat the Earth and all its other creatures. By now, the Eden's Gate Development now consists of over 30 homes. One day, Seymour discovers videos of a militant climate activist. He goes by the name the "Bishop", carries an assault rifle, and is seeking people to "join him". Seymour becomes engrossed in watching these videos, neglecting other parts of his life. He forgets to attend the event at the library when they unveil a new book drop that looks like an owl. He stops taking his pills. Meanwhile, the motel Bunny works at closes down, and she loses her job. Bunny takes out a payday loan for quick cash.
In Mission Year 64, Konstance is in isolation in Vault One and everyone else is likely dead. Sybil refuses to let her out for her own safety. Konstance uses the time to explore her father's boyhood home via the Atlas. There, she sees a copy of the book Cloud Cuckoo Land, translated by someone named "Zeno Ninis". She tries to find a copy of the same book in the Library, but it isn't there. She ends up doing research on Zeno, and she learns that he died on February 20, 2020 at the public library in Lakeport while trying to protect a group of kids from a terrorist. She ends up finding the owl drop box in the Atlas version of Lakeport, though the library is no longer there.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, excerpts. As Aethon's story continues, Aethon-the-donkey goes looking for a rose to undo his transformation, but eats some seaweed instead and is transformed into a fish. He then gets eaten by a large sea creature. In its belly, he meets a great wizard who tells him that Cloud Cuckoo Land doesn't exist, but who agrees to turn him into a bird. Aethon-the-crow flies happily into the air until he gets caught up in a storm. A waterspout sends him up high into the skies, propelling him past the moon and into the stars. Up there, he finally glimpses Cloud Cuckoo Land in all its beauty and heavenly grandeur...
In Chapter 15, in present day, Seymour goes upstairs, but Zeno and the kids are hiding. Before he can find them, the wounded man from downstairs (Sharif) calls out to Seymour. He demands that Seymour come back downstairs or else he'll go give the backpack (with the bomb) to the police outside.
In Chapters 16 - 20, outside Constantinople, Anna rows out until she is exhausted. She falls asleep and wakes up in time to capsize on a rock. She sees that she has traveled only a few miles up the coast. She continues her way up the coast on foot until she comes across a bird roasting on a fire in the forest. When she goes to eat it, someone comes up behind her and knocks her out. It turns out to be Omeir, who did not realize she was a young girl. When she awakes, he gives her some food. The two then continue to travel together, and she helps him to ward off suspicions of being a deserter (since she seems like a prize he has won in battle). After many days of travel, they arrive at Omeir's home.
From 1972 - 1995, Zeno returns to Lakeport, works on his Greek and takes care of Mrs. Boydstun (who has Huntington's). He later learns that Rex had a heart attack and died. Eventually, Mrs. Boydstun passes away as well. Zeno then refocuses on learning and translating Greek.
In May 2109, Zeno finds out that the text of an ancient Greek goatskin codex that was once considered illegible is being scanned with new technology that can extract the text. Recalling how Rex had once dreamed of a discovery like this, Zeno sets himself to translating the newly discovered manuscript of Cloud Cuckoo Land. Zeno hits a creative roadblock, but at the library he starts telling the story to a group of fifth graders and it reinvigorates his translation work. The kids also ask him to turn it into a play for them to perform. The whole process is a delight for Zeno. After months of work, he shows up early to the Library on February 20, 2020 to see the completed set.
Meanwhile, by August 2019, Seymour has now reached out to the "Bishop" and his organization. His point of contact is someone going by "Mathilda". She describes an idyllic commune they all live in together, and she says he can join them once he completes his "task".
On Konstance's 276th day in isolation, she reaches for the owl drop box and realizes she's able to grasp on to it, unlike other things in the Atlas. When she does so, it opens up a hidden area that where it's February 20, 2020 and she's at the public library in Lakeport. Konstance is also able to find Zeno Ninis's version of Cloud Cuckoo Land there, and she starts to transcribe it section by section into scraps of sackcloth (from the food powder bags in the Vault). Konstance also learns that one of the kids that Zeno saved the day he died was Rachel Wilson, who was her grandmother.
Konstance then starts to see that there are places in the Atlas with depictions of owls that seem more vibrant than their surroundings. She realizes she's able to touch them and reveal hidden images, though what she sees is often distressing. There are people starving and garbage everywhere. In her father's hometown, she sees people clamoring for water near a water truck as men with guns shoot at the crowd. Konstance then travels to Qaanaaq, the location where the crew of the Argos had been stationed before departing. It turns out to be a small island. When she touches an wood owl statue, it reveals itself to be an industrial complex that is enclosed in razor-wire. Seeing the domed building at its center, Konstance realizes that Argos is not a ship at all. Instead, she is still on Earth, in Qaanaaq.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, excerpts. As Aethon's story continues, Aethon-the-crow ends up at the gates to Cloud Cuckoo Land. A owl stands at the entrance and says he has a riddle for him to determine if he really is a bird, since only birds can enter. Aethon manages the right answer, and the gates open. There, he eats delicious food and enjoys all the delights of Cloud Cuckoo Land. However, eventually a sense of restlessness fills him. It's suggested to Aethon that he read a book to cure himself of it. Aethon approaches the goddess for the book, and she recognizes that he is not really a bird. She warns him that if he reads the book to the end, he will become truly like them -- he will be free from desire and no longer have a sense of hunger and drive...
In Chapter 21, in present day, Zeno and the children quietly do a read-through of the script upstairs. Then, Rachel realizes that parts of the section of Cloud Cuckoo Land are out of order. She points out that if Diogenes was writing this for his dying niece, the point of his adventures is that he's able to pass the story on, so it would make more sense for Aethon to return home to tell his story. Zeno agrees and sees that there are two sections that, if rearranged, point to Aethon deciding to leave Cloud Cuckoo Land and return home.
As Zeno reflects on all the times he wishes he'd been braver or taken more risks, he decides to head downstairs, revealing his presence to Seymour. He tells Seymour that he's going to call for medical assistance for Sharif. Before he can, one of the phones taped to the bombs (which will detonate the bombs on the fifth ring) starts to ring.
In Argos in Mission Year 65, Konstance looks at the schematics for Argos and understands that it was always just a feasibility study or trial run about intergenerational survival. Determined to get out, Konstance lights a fire within Vault One to force Sybil to open the Vault door.
In Chapters 22 - 24, in 1453 at Omeir's family home, Omeir slowly teaches Anna his language. They later have three sons, Anna reads to them from her book. She passes away when she is 54. Years later, there is a flood at the cottage. When Anna's book gets soaked, Omeir dries off the pages. When reassembles the book, he is uncertain of the order of the leaves (which is why the book ends up being out of order). After this incident, Omeir shows people Anna's snuffbox until he's told that the enamel depicts Urbino, Italy. He travels there and offers the book to the library at the palace, telling them that he was told they safeguard books there.
in 2021, Seymour is in prison. There, he learns to code. He also gets a job with Ilium Corporation -- he looks over their scan of Earth and flags "objectionable content" (such as homeless people, demonstrators, graffiti, etc.) for removal. In May 2030, he writes to Marian, asking about the work that Zeno had been doing. She soon sends over a box of Zeno's notes, and Seymore reads through Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Years pass. In 2057, Seymour is 58 and is now on work-release. He spends his nights recovering the "objectional content" images and hiding them back in the Atlas, accessible when someone touches the images of various owls. He invites the former fifth graders from the day at the library back to Lakeport, not knowing if they will accept. There, he presents them with copies of Cloud Cuckoo Land (which he had printed based on Zeno's translations). He also shows them how they can access the scanned version of the library via the owl drop box in the Atlas.
In Argos in Mission Year 65, after Konstance escapes the vault, she uses a makeshift axe to break through the exterior of Argos. She drops down onto the ground outside, confirming that she's on earth, in Qaanaaq. She watches the sunrise.
In the Epilogue, the story flashes back to the day at the library on February 20, 2020. After the phone trigger for the bombs started ringing, Zeno grabbed the the backpack and ran as fast as he could, past the police and towards the lake when the bomb detonates.
On Qaanaaq, Anna lives in a 49-person village. By 2146, she has a 3-year-old son and is pregnant with another child. The book ends with her working in her garden, and after she is done, her son asks her to read Cloud Cuckoo Land to him.
For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.