Sly Mongoose by Tobias S. Buckell is a standalone novel set in the same universe as Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. Here, the action takes place on Chilo, a planet with an atmosphere so harsh that people live in domed cities floating 100,000 feet above the surface. Young Timas, from the city of Yatapek, works as a “xocoyotzin” mining metals by donning a pressure suit and being lowered to the surface. His world is thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Pepper, a Ragamuffin who brings warning of an invasion. What they are after is hidden deep within a monstrous storm that harbors ancient secrets…
John: I have to admit I didn’t know what to expect with Sly Mongoose. I really enjoyed Crystal Rain, but thought that Ragamuffin was a minor misstep. I couldn’t really chalk that up to “middle book syndrome” since the stories are independent of one another. Sly Mongoose is another standalone story and I have to say this one was every bit a fun as Crystal Rain and, in some aspects, even more so.
JP: For whatever reason, I was expecting Sly Mongoose to pick up shortly after the end of Ragamuffin. It doesn’t. Buckell takes a page from the Galactica playbook and moves the action 50 years in to future. This is a bold move that didn’t quite work for me at first, but once the story got moving, it wasn’t a big problem. By moving the story forward, Buckell is free to concentrate on the story he wanted to tell, without having to write the complete back story. Of course, that back story could have made an interesting book(s) as well.
What I did like was the fact that story starts with Pepper, in basically an escape pod, entering the atmosphere of Chilo at re-entry speeds. Exciting to say the least.
John: Yes, the opening was exactly the hook it needed to be to keep you reading. I particularly enjoyed the world building of Chilo that immediately followed: learning about the planet’s deadly atmosphere, how the caste society elevates xocoyotzin to the upper levels of the city, Yatapek’s economical status vs. the other cities…and of course the floating cities themselves. Having floating cities means airship travel is common, and there’s no way to make airships boring.
JP: The world building is one of the best parts of the book, and not just because you get airships and pirates. There are floating cities, airships and, therefore, airship pirates, flocks of mechanical avian creatures and a unique culture for the inhabitants. Nicely done. You also have the mysterious entities that exist on the surface that play a major role later. A bit cliché perhaps, but definitely not what you might expect from that plot thread. I did like the society that Buckell created for Sly Mongoose. You get the feeling of the culture that is slowly running down and only survives due to the efforts of the xocoyotzin as they mine the surface for metals. And Buckell does a nice job of creating an interesting culture for the main city based on the mining efforts of the kids involved. From there, he introduces Pepper to this city with a bang and the story is off and running.
John: And then, in a non-linear storytelling jump, he tells us the back story of how Pepper came to arrive on Yatapek in what has to be the single best sequence of chapters I’ve read all year. All that minimally needs to be said is “Space Zombies” but that would shortchange the dramatic tension and action scenes that contribute to it. I found the book impossible to put down during this early section.
JP: I liked the whole sequence with Pepper on the ship with the “zombies”. I did have an issue with the timeline though. It seemed awfully fast for him to be branded a “mass murderer”, considering the fact the book opens with him escaping from said ship, already branded as a murderer. It was unclear to me just who had placed that tag on Pepper, and what authorities had verified that. I’m assuming the “zombies” did it, but I wasn’t sure.
John: What did you think of the characters? Pepper was one of my favorites from the previous books, so I was glad to see him take center stage. The role he could play in the action (aside from the flashback) was limited because of some lost limbs due to his tumble from space, but once he went RoboCop, there was no stopping him. Meanwhile, Timas was coming into his own, faced with enormous responsibility and playing a major part not only in the protection of the city from the Swarm invasion, but also in finding answers as to what they were looking for. Added to that was the drama surrounding his family’s social status, a recent fatality, and a healthy dash of secret history. I also liked the idea of the mindshare practiced by Katerina the Avatar. It produced some interesting dilemmas for both her and Timas as they made their way through their part of the adventure.
JP: I think you hit on the three best characters for me as well. Pepper, of course. The comparison to RoboCop didn’t occur to me but it fits perfectly. Timas seemed to be forced into doing things early on, but that’s because his family, and the city, depend on kids like Timas to go to the surface and mine. Later, Timas chooses his actions because they are the right thing to do. And who wouldn’t like a hybrid character who, for part of the time, is an individual consciousness, and then at other parts is part of a greater moiety? Katerina’s society is a true democracy, backed up by the technology to make it work – an interesting setup. I’d like to see more about her people. I’d like to mention one more character that caught my attention: the crazy, hermit guy who tends to the machine avian creatures. He’s a cross between Leonardo Da Vinci and the crotchety guy who yells “Get off my lawn!”
John: Ah yes…Van VerMeer, who tends the steampunkish Strandbeests. This is, of course, an obvious nod to Jeff VanderMeer.
JP: Since we’re talking about the characters here, I’m going to mention the one issue I had with the book. Some of the character’s actions seemed telegraphed, or obvious. For instance: of course Pepper was going to plummet through the atmosphere of a planet and smash into one of the flying cities and survive. Of course Timas was going to descend to the surface and to search for the aliens. It’s even expected that he would find them, just as his air supply ran out, whereby the aliens would rescue him. Clichés as it were. There were a couple of more times where this happened and, while it bothered me a bit, it didn’t ruin the book for me.
John: Well, sure, we know the story had to drive some elements towards predestined directions. What I enjoyed about it is that it made for good reading anyway, despite any direction we knew it was headed. Furthermore, the narrative is succinct while doing so. This is not a book that feels unnecessarily padded. Buckell hooks you in, tells his story, and gets out before it ever feels like it starts to drag. In that respect, it was well done.
JP: I was just hoping, in retrospect, that the obvious route wouldn’t be taken. But you’re right, even so, the story moves along at a rapid pace with quite a bit of action. I’d say the big set pieces are really engrossing. You’ve got the battle on the spaceship, followed by the fighting on Chilo, that culminates with one flying city ramming another. Awesome stuff. Plus zombies, which are always cool. Especially space zombies created by a unique “plague”. There’s lots of good stuff here, I just had some niggling issues with the way the story was told.