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REVIEW: Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell

REVIEW SUMMARY: An awesome debut novel.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: John deBrun, a man with no memory of his past, must find a mythological artifact to protect the people of Nanagada from the invading Azteca.

PROS: Flawless pacing; rich story background; cultural flavor; colorful characters.
CONS: The Caribbean dialect, while it added to the island flavor, was somewhat of an impediment to reading the dialogue.
BOTTOM LINE: An enjoyable and fast-paced retro-science fiction adventure in a colorful setting supported by a wondrous futuristic background.

It might be convenient to describe Tobias S. Buckell‘s debut novel, Crystal Rain, as a science fiction adventure, but to do so would shortchange all the other fine qualities it has to offer; things like atmospheric flavor, intriguing story background, superb pacing and characters that evoke feeling in the reader.

The story takes place on the planet Nanagada, more than 300 years after humans, looking to emigrate there via wormhole, are caught between an intense battle between two alien races, the Loa and the shape-changing Teotl. The battle rendered all technology unusable and society quickly decayed to the equivalent of Earth’s Industrial Revolution era. That means long-distance travel is largely accomplished by steam-powered rail cars, boats and (my favorite) airships. The evil Teotl remain largely behind the Wicked High Mountains where they are manipulating a group of humans called the Azteca, who worship their alien gods through cold-blooded sacrifice. Meanwhile, any semblance of what we’d call normal civilization, albeit a steam-powered one, occupies a peninsula and is run by the government located in Capitol City, a government supported by the mongoose-man army and manipulated behind the scenes by the alien Loa.

Although there is no longer all-out war between the Loa and the Teotl, there are frequent excursions across the mountains by spies from both sides. Sacrifices are all-too-common. But even this uneasy state of affairs is to be short-lived as the Azteca have launched a major attack through the mountains. News spreads quickly (via telegraph!) about the encroaching danger that heads toward Capitol City, the last bastion of safety. The one hope that the Prime Minister of Capitol City has is to launch an expedition to find the mysterious and mythical artifact known as the Ma Wi Jung, which is hidden in the far, icy north. To make matters worse, the only one who can unlock its secrets, John deBrun, has no recollection of who he really is or how to operate it.

If it sounds like there are some well-tread tropes here (amnesiac protagonist with a hidden past, age-old warring races, the fate of survival resting on one man’s shoulders), it’s because there are. But a testament to the capable skill a first-time author is how these tropes are used to propel an interesting story along at the perfect pace. There are absolutely no slow parts in this book. It’s stuffed with action scenes (as all good adventure stories should be) but even the parts in-between are used to flesh out the intriguing and wonderful back-story of the planet’s history. These are told as legend but, of course, as a reader we surmise the truth; things like how “nana” must be nanotech that provide longevity to the old-fathers. I found this story background to be very appealing not only in content, but also in what it might mean for future stories set in the same universe.

This is all backdrop, though. The story is three parts island adventure for every one part science fiction background. Caribbean-born Buckell draws heavily from his own life experiences to create a wonderfully-drawn Caribbean like setting, explained in-story as being the result of a culturally diverse set of pilgrims that launched from Earth. The only issue I had with this was that the Caribbean accents that helped contribute to this tasty flavor were a bit of a stumbling block when reading dialogue. I think the decision to include the accents was the correct one, but to me personally it’s like walking through tall grass; you can do it, it just takes longer to make any progress. Besides, this is more than made up for with the way cool retro-tech. C’mon…airship battles? How cool is that?

The story is told in multiple threads, each one as enjoyable and well-paced as any other. The deBrun story is the main thread and follows the hero as he travels up the coast, trying to reach Capitol City. Separated from his family, deBrun, one missing hand replaced by a hook, encounters one adventure after another. Once that journey hits the high seas, pace picks up even more. And deBrun’s companion, Oaxyctl, is not the friend he appears to be so there’s sufficient tension to induce nail-biting. It helps, too, that we see some violent sacrifice scenes that paint the Azteca as the evil – albeit manipulated – vermin they are. Another thread shows us Pepper, a mysterious and deadly stranger who is looking for deBrun. Pepper’s relationship with deBrun is, by book’s end, way more complex than originally portrayed. A third thread shows Prime Minister Dihana and her military strongman, Haidan (leader of the mongoose-men army), and their efforts to fortify Capitol City before the Azteca arrive. Again, as we see the Azteca conquering the coast, city by city, there is this ever-increasing tension, like a timer counting down to devastation. A minor thread follows John’s son, Jerome, his flight to safety, and the revelation of his father’s true identity.

In the end, Crystal Rain is an enjoyable and fast-paced retro-science fiction adventure in a colorful setting supported by a wondrous futuristic background. What’s not to like? Try it yourself at the book’s website, where the first third of the book can be read for free.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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