Crystal Rain is Tobias Buckell’s debut novel, initially released back in 2006, and it’s a novel that brings something a little different to science fiction. Born and raised in the Caribbean, Buckell brings a strong flavour of that culture to this story, much to its benefit. With a re-release of the three Xenowealth novels earlier this year (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose), I thought it was about time I revisited them in preparation for my first-read of the fourth (and self-published) novel, The Apocalypse Ocean.
The inhabitants of Nanagada and Aztlan are descendant from the Caribbean, now occupying lands each side of the Wicked Highs, a mountain range that separates each nation with only one route between the two, the Mafolie Pass. The alien Teotl that rule over the Aztecans as gods demand blood sacrifices, while the Nanagadans live in peace with the alien Loa. The Teotl and Loa have fought each other for a long time, and now the Aztecans are coming through the mountains under the direction of the Teotl to wage war on Nanagada.
John deBrun lost his memory 27 years ago and now passes his time in Brungstum with his wife and son. His past life is a blank to him, although he has come through situations that have killed all others around him. He is the only person to travel to the northlands and return alive, and to travel over Hope’s Loss and return healthy. Now the invasion of the Aztecans turns his life upside down. Travelling north with Oaxycytl, an Aztecan spy, he arrives in Capitol City wanting to join the Mongoose men and fight against the Aztecans to take revenge for the losses he has suffered.
With the discovery of old information, a crew is put together to travel to the northlands by ship to find the Ma Wi Jung, a mysterious object said to contain the power to defeat the Teotl. John is appointed the captain and given the things he needs to get to the location where the Ma Wi Jung should be. With the Aztecans marching on Capitol City their time is limited, but they are the only hope.
What Tobias Buckell has done here is pretty impressive. He’s taken a culture that wouldn’t usually be put in the same sentence as science fiction and created something that is both unique and familiar. Although not heavily science fiction related, the story has constant references to a time when humanity was technically advanced and flew between the stars. Although most of the story is told through the eyes of characters that just don’t know or don’t understand the technology, the moments when we do get to see from the perspective of those with the knowledge doesn’t give too much detail – enough to know there is more, just not quite what it is.
The characters are also really well presented. The handful who we spend the majority of the novel with are well developed, interesting and unique – of the five or so main characters, each was distinct and engrossing. I can honestly say that there were none that I disliked reading and no plot thread that didn’t feel rewarding. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention Pepper, the mysterious stranger that turns up looking for deBrun. Not only is he entertaining, but as the story progresses and we find out more about him it raises even more questions about the wider setting.
The only real point that I can say I struggled with was the dialect, but only early on in the book. Buckell has obviously used his background to create a great setting which is a refreshing change, but the dialect is difficult to get into. Saying this, after getting to the quarter way mark I was barely noticing the difference simply because the book flows so well, and the culture is presented in such a way that works, pulling you into the story.
Crystal Rain is a great read – not too long, but with so many ideas. It contains such a well told story I find it difficult to believe the length: I would have expected a longer book, but the pace is one of its greatest strengths. I was never bored of reading and each chapter added something to the whole. Next up I’ll be sinking my teeth into my Ragamuffin re-read, and remind myself just what Buckell can do with space opera.