REVIEW: Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin is set in the same universe as his first novel, Crystal Rain and looks at life outside the planet Nanagada. Humanity, which is technologically and geographically repressed by the supposedly benevolent Satrapy, has suddenly become marked for extinction. This should be easy since the inhabitable forty-eight worlds are connected by wormholes under the Satrapy’s control. However, an augmented warrior named Natasha who holds the key to saving mankind has other plans. Meanwhile, back on Nanagada, John DeBrun and his friend Pepper face the return of the vicious Teotl, only to learn that they are also in the crosshairs of the Satrapy. An uneasy alliance may be their only hope…
John: Woot! Finally, the sequel to Crystal Rain. And Ragamuffin‘s not a direct rip-off of the prequel. I applaud Buckell’s decision to write a sequel that breaks the format of a successful first novel. It’s a daring move to make changes to an already-established world, especially for a new author who had a successful first novel. Buckell is obviously not afraid to disrupt the fictional status quo, and even to make some major changes of direction with the plot.
JP: I think Buckell has taken a risk by moving from a planetary adventure story to a more traditional space opera setting. Part of the success of Crystal Rain, I think, can be attributed to its unique and interesting setting. Moving to space opera places Ragamuffin in a more conventional SF setting. I think Buckell succeeds with this change, as he has his own unique take on a space opera setting. Also, taking a wider view of the setting allows Buckell to expand on events alluded to in Crystal Rain (the destruction of the wormholes leading to human worlds) and also what the role of humanity happens to be in the Satrapy. He also gives us some rip-roaring set pieces, one of which is depicted on the cover. Lot’s of fun. The other interesting aspect of the setting is the wormhole transit system, which feels like a cross between a subway and a river.
John: I confess to having very high expectations for Ragamuffin based on my experience with Crystal Rain. Overall, I liked Ragamuffin, but there were some moments where the novel did not meet those expectations. This is the problem with expectations…an optimist will usually be disappointed but a pessimist will always be pleasantly surprised.
JP: I, too, had high expectations for the book. And, I think that first half of the book lives up to those expectations. I really enjoyed the exploits of Nashara, the cyborg Ragamuffin. Oddly enough, the book fell short when the setting changed back to Nanagada. Things felt rushed and the wonder just wasn’t there.
John: I found the construction of the story to be interesting. As I saw it, it’s broken up into three acts: (1) Nashara’s escape from the Hongguo, humanity’s interface to the Satrapy that rules over the 48 planets and controls the wormholes between them; (2) The return of the Teotl to Nanagada; and (3) The fight to smack down the Satrapy. It was nice to see characters from Crystal Rain appear in act two. But by the time act three came along, I forgot the players from act one. (More a fault of reading the book in short bursts.) But I must say that the first act’s finale – depicted, as you mention, on the awesome Todd Lockwood cover – was simply superb.
JP: I saw it as two acts, the first as you mention, then the second being the rest. But I can see how you could create a third act. Again I felt the second act of the book felt really rushed. The action on Nanagada happens very quickly, then we’re back in space again, trying to get the Ragamuffins to band together to face the threat from the Satrapy. The final battle also felt chaotic and rushed, and part of it relied upon a piece of ‘misinformation’ that I felt was cheating a bit. At just over 300 pages, I think Ragamuffin could have used a few more pages to slow the story down a bit and give it a more cohesive feel. The first half didn’t feel rushed at all, hence the disconnect.
John: How about all those factions? The Satrapy, the Hongguo, Gahe, the League of Human Affairs, Azteca, Teotl, Ragamuffins – some plot elements were difficult to follow, mostly because there were just too many factions. I thought it added unnecessary complexity to the story. Either that, or it was too much for my enfeebled brain to juggle.
JP: I agree, your mind is feeble. I think this is more a result of the chaotic rush of the second half than anything else. I didn’t have issues following the factions.
John: Oh well, at least we’re in agreement about my feeble mindedness. Anywho…I noticed that, for a novel centered on a bunch of space pirates, there was not much swashbuckling. Perhaps some residual piratey goodness lingers from Sun of Suns.
JP: I’m not sure the Ragamuffins are really pirates. More like smugglers who skirt the law than actually going all piratey on other ships. That would bring the Satrapy down on them quickly. And let’s not forget why the Ragamuffins are in existence. Actually being pirates would bring too much attention to them. Far better to use people like Nashara to wreak havoc. I found the reason for Nashara’s existence to be extremely cool and it fit in well with the universe as written.
John: Yep, the strongest characters were the most entertaining. Natasha and Pepper both were the stars of the book, maybe because their motivations were clear: Natasha driven to get the word out about the Satrapy threat of genocide; Pepper driven to finally, after hundreds of years, leave Nanagada by re-opening the closed wormhole.
JP: I agree. Both have definite goals in mind and relentlessly try to achieve them. Nashara actually has a bit more humanity in her than Pepper does, most likely due to being in contact with regular humans quite a bit and not stuck on some quarantined planet with nothing to do but be bitter about the situation. John DeBrun comes off as weak and unfocused. I really thought he’d be more of an interesting character, but here he just seems to be pushed along by events.
John: And what about his son? Joshua DeBrun was a bit wishy-washy. In one chapter, while barricaded in his home, he states he will fight the invading Teotl to the death. To the death! In the next chapter to follow that story line, he says “I don’t want to die here.” Excuse me? Where was that smack-talking twenty-something we saw a minute ago?
JP: I think there he realized the hopelessness of the situation and changed his mind. An angry mob of scalp-taking Aztec wannabes will do that to you.
John: So I hear. Nitpicking aside, I thought this was still a good book overall. Not great, but good.
JP: I also thought Ragamuffin was good follow-up to Crystal Rain, if not up to the standards of that book. There is a good story here, with a great first half, marred by a rushed and chaotic feeling second half. Having said that, I’m still really interested to see how all this ends in Sly Mongoose. I mean, it’s got “Mongoose” in the title! ‘Nuff said.
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