Sunday, April 5, 2009
Review: Crystal Rain, by Tobias S. Buckell
Crystal Rain, by Tobias S. Buckell, copyright 2006 and published by Tor Books. I read it on my Kindle, from the free version Tor distributed to celebrate the start up of their new tor.com website.
The story begins very much in a low tech setting, so much so that it wasn't until about halfway through that I was convinced that Crystal Rain was science fiction, and not fantasy. The setting is a continent with a topical climate that is divided by impassable mountains, called the Wicked High Mountains (which made me think of a Massachusetts dialect!). On one side is a Caribbean derived society, where people live with considerable freedom. The people on this side appear to have only local government, and no national institutions, and their national identity seems to be tied up in NOT being of the culture on the other side of the Wicked Highs. On the other is an Aztec derived culture with highly organized and efficient theocratic governments. This land is called Aztlan by its inhabitants, a fact which made me wonder whether or not the lack of a name for the other side was significant or not. On both sides of the mountains the societies have gods which live among the people and occasionally make appearances, though the Aztec gods are as bloodthirsty as tradition would hold. These two sets of gods are at war with each other, and are using the human population as pawns to carry out the struggle.
In this setting we meet John deBrun, a stranger who literally washed up on shore twenty-some years earlier with no memories of who he was. He's currently living a happy life as a fisherman in a coastal village, with a wife and a young son. He occasionally wonders about his previous life, but doesn't let it stop him from being happy. This happy existence is maintained by a military force known as the mongoose men, who man the barricades at the only usable pass through the Wicked High Mountains, thereby keeping the violent Azteca on their own side of the mountains. At the start of the book, the Azteca have broken through the mountains by means of a tunnel they've been digging for centuries under the instructions of their gods, and begin a full scale invasion of the other side, in search of slaves, sacrificial victims, and prosecuting their gods' wars against the other side. The mongoose men are woefully unprepared for full scale warfare, and so the only hope is for John to recover his memories, which seem to be related to legends of long lost technology which could drive the Azteca back.
Most of the book is the story of John deBrun solving the mystery of himself in order to save his family from the sacrificial daggers of the Azteca, at times both assisted and hindered by another mysterious outsider named Pepper, who literally falls from the sky just prior to the invasion.
A good book. I was a little confused towards the beginning with respect to the background, but that's okay. I suspect that figuring out what the heck is going on is one of the draws of reading science fiction and fantasy. Most of the book is from John's POV, which also adds to the confusion, since he is an amnesiac. In this it reminded me a little of Roger Zelazny's first Amber book, which uses the same device. There are a couple of other POVs, including one of an Azteca double agent on a mission from one of the Azteca gods to capture John (no spoiler here, this is made apparent from the first time the character appears). I think this was thrown in partially to show us that the Azteca aren't just cardboard villains, but to my mind it doesn't really succeed at that goal. The Azteca do seem like eeevvviillll cardboard villains, and I think the book would have benefited from a more shades-of-gray approach to them. The Caribbean descended society (how I wish they had a name by which they referred to themselves!!) are clearly supposed to be the good guys, and do have a moral compass closely aligned to that of today's society. Never having been to the Caribbean, I can't say how realistic the culture seems, though aside from the use of an odd dialect and a few specific Caribbean references, I would not have figured out that this wasn't just more Americans in space.
By the end of the book we have figured out the broad outlines of John's origin, and how it relates to the rest of humanity out there among the stars (yes, it really is a science fiction book!). I gather that the other two books set in the same universe don't take place on the same planet, and am looking forward to reading those: Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose.
Buy the book. It features an interesting background with a good mystery to be resolved, and promises more of the same in the subsequent books.
What other people have to say about Crystal Rain:
Donna Royston at Strange Horizons
John Ottinger III at Grasping for the Wind
Rob H. Bedford at sffworld.com
Steven Klotz at Mentatjack
Thomas M. Wagner at SF Reviews.net