When I came across advertisements for The Flying Cloud, I was a bit unsure of what to make of the illustrated serial story. To be honest, I’m not exactly a fan of most fanfiction (which TFC most definitely is not, I should add), due to inconsistencies in characterization and the like. I also tend to prefer reading fiction in print (or more recently on my Nook e-reader). Oh, there have been exceptions, such as back a decade ago with the older Homeworld fiction, but I tend for the most part to avoid reading online prose stories unless I’m familiar with the author.
Fortunately, I made an exception with TFC and was soon swept into an alternative history where U.S. President Woodrow Wilson managed in 1916 to negotiate an Armistice that restored the pre-War borders to Europe. In doing so, the military-driven development of aeroplanes was torpedoed, allowing dirigibles and airships to reign supreme in the skies. The serial story follows the exploits of British Captain Everett and the crew of the R-505 “Flying Cloud” in service to King George V (though when the story begins, they’re onboard the remains of the R-212 “Flying Lady” after they run across a mysterious unmarked airship that ambushes them).
The story follows the traditions of serial fiction, with each chapter maintaining a cohesive continuity with its brethren. For the most part the story is told sequentially, though when the cast of characters split up chronology sometimes can get fragmented as each subplot is fleshed out. There are also multiple homages and shout-outs, from multiple nods to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to a ship captain named Howard Phillips whose home port is in New England, to Star Trek of all things. Undoubtedly there are other historical shout-outs provided as well; unfortunately, my knowledge of the early 20th century is perhaps a bit lacking so I’m not quite sure when we’re seeing homages sneak in.
As for the overarching plot, some aspects of it are obvious at times such as the apparent development of atomic weaponry by a Russian scientist who is being pursued by German Nationalists – amusingly enough, it’s strongly suggested that the “discovery” is due in part to archaeological discoveries rather than by a team of scientists (this being related to elements of the Lovecraftian mythos that appear frequently in the story). While this may seem anachronistic given the time period, it works quite well with Captain Everett and crew trying to piece together what’s going on while being puzzled over interest in a mineral used to color glass.
It’s the cast of characters that make The Flying Cloud so enjoyable to read. The cast is varied, including the original members of the R-212 (with Captain Everett being your traditional “unflappable captain” who is still flexible enough to accept such things as female crew members and non-English personnel), as well as Sarah, an island girl who meets up with them (and who eventually falls for Iverson, a young executive officer who is being mentored by the Captain) and Pierre, a Frenchman criminal whose skills prove quite useful as the R-505 investigates the multiple conspiracies in the region around Australia. One bit I found especially amusing is the rather whimsical betting between the Scotsman Abercrombie and the Irishman MacKiernan over nearly any situation, especially when their lives (and that of the ship and crew) are on the line.
If there’s a problem with the web-serial, it’s that the story is addictive. Before you know it, you may find you spent five hours reading part of the archive. Given that it is a prose story (with the start of each chapter including an illustration with a humorous mouse-over caption), I must admit to some surprise that author Paul Gazis never bothered to create an e-book download so people could download it and read the story at their leisure. Needless to say, I recommend this web-serial, especially if they’re fans of alternative history fiction.