Book excerpt: “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the bestseller “All the Light We Can’t See,” returns with a new historical novel spanning more than 700 years.

The expansive story of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” (Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS) stretches from 15th-century Constantinople, through present-day Idaho, and into the 22nd century.

Read an excerpt below, and do not miss Lee Cowan’s interview with Anthony Doerr on “CBS Sunday Morning” October 3rd!


Simon & Schuster


On the fourth hill of the city we call Constantinople, but as the inhabitants at that time simply called the city, across the street from the monastery of Saint Theophano in the Empress of the once large embroidery house of Nicholas Kalaphates, lives an orphan named Anna. She does not speak until she is three. Then it’s all the time question.

“Why are we breathing, Maria?”

“Why don’t horses have fingers?”

“If I eat a raven’s egg, will my hair turn black?”

“Does the moon fit in the sun, Mary, or is it the other way around?”

The nuns of Saint Theophano call her Monkey because she always climbs on their fruit trees, and the Fourth Hill boys call her Mosquito because she does not want to leave them alone, and the main embroiderer, Widow Theodora, says she should be named Hopeless because she is the only child she has ever known who can learn a nail one hour and completely forget it the next.

Anna and her big sister, Maria, sleep in a cell with a window that is almost not big enough for a pallet of horsehair. Between them, they own four copper coins, three ivory buttons, a patched woolen rug, and an icon of St. Koralia that may or may not have belonged to their mother. Anna has never tasted sweet cream, never eaten an orange and never set foot outside the city walls. By the time she turns fourteen, every person she knows will be a slave or dead.


Dawn. Rain falls on the city. Twenty embroidery climbs up the stairs to the study and finds their benches and widow Theodora moves from window to window opening shutters. She says, “Blessed are you, protect us from unemployment”, and the craftsmen say, “For we have sinned without number,” and widow Theodora unlocks the wire and weighs the gold and silver wire and the small boxes of seed pearls and records the weights of a wax tablet, and as soon as the room is bright enough to see a black thread from a white one, they begin.

The oldest, at seventy, is Thekla. The youngest at seven years old is Anna. She sits next to her sister and watches Maria roll a half-finished priestly speech across the table. Down the borders, in neat rounds, twine vines around larks, peacocks and pigeons. “Now that we have outlined John the Baptist,” says Mary, “we add his features.” She threads a needle with matching threads of colored cotton, attaches an embroidery frame to the center of the chair, and performs a hail of stitches. “We turn the needle and bring the tip up through the middle of the last stitch and divide the fibers like that, you see?”

Anna does not see. Who wants a life like this, bent all day over needle and thread, sewing of saints and stars and griffins and vines in the garments of hierarchs? Eudokia sings a hymn about the three holy children and Agatha sings one about Job’s trials, and widow Theodora steps through the workspace like a heron chasing ducks. Anna tries to follow Maria’s needle – backstitch, chain stitch – but right in front of their table a small brown stone chat lights up on the threshold, shakes water off her back, sings wheat-each-each-each, and in the blink of an eye, Anna has daydreamed into the bird. She flutters off the threshold, avoiding raindrops and rising south over the neighborhood, over the ruins of the Basilica of Saint Polyeuktus. Seagulls roll around the dome of Hagia Sophia like beans swirling around God’s head, and the wind tears the wide strait of the Bosphorus into white caps, and a grocery galley rounds its nose, its sails full of wind, but Anna still flies higher until the city is a fretwork of rooftops and gardens far below until she is in the clouds until –

“Anna,” Maria hisses. “What dental floss here?”

From across the workroom, widow Theodora’s attention flickers to them.

“Crimson? Wrapped around the cord?”

“None.” Maria sighs. “Not reddish brown. And no cord.”

From “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr. Copyright © 2021 by Anthony Doerr. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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