Mark Terry

Monday, November 27, 2006

CRYSTAL RAIN by Tobias Buckell--a review

November 27, 2006
My brother gave me a copy of his friend's first novel back in the spring. It's a science fiction novel called CRYSTAL RAIN and I sort of dicked around getting around to reading it, nibbling a few pages at a time. I finally cleared the deck and finished it and I thought it was so unusual it was worthy of a review. So:

CRYSTAL RAIN by Tobias Buckell

The novel takes places on a planet a long way from earth in a very distant future. The equatorial regions of the planet are populated primarily by people from the island regions of earth--Bahamian, Jamaican, etc. Three hundred years earlier, something catastrophic happened to destroy the wormholes that allowed travel to the planet; the same event also decimated most of the technology on the planet. Three hundred years later, the cultures have changed and most of the technology is but a distant and fond memory. On one side of the Wicked Highs mountains are the Nanagadans. On the other side are the Azteca. Both have in their presence "gods," in the case of the Azteca the Teotl and in the case of the Nanagadans, the Loa. The Loa are largely uninvolved in what's going on in Nanagada, but the Teotl encourage their worship and human sacrifice, and now, after generations of toils, the Azteca have built a tunnel beneath the Wicked Highs and are mounting a slash-and-burn war on Nanagada.

The main character is John DeBrun, a fisherman who has very little or any memory of what happened to him prior to about 20 years earlier when he washed ashore on Nanagada. He has settled into his life here, has a wife and son, and is notable for having a hook for a hand, which he lost on a trip to the "north," which he lost to frostbite. When the Azteca attack, John and his family are separated and John is captured by Azteca who plan on sacrificing him, but he is rescued by an Azteca who has been told by a Teotl that he must find John DeBrun and torture the location of the Ma Wi Jung out of him.

John has no memory of the Ma Wi Jung and as he and the traitorous Azteca travel to Capital City, they strike up an odd friendship. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Pepper is hunting for John. Pepper is clearly not a normal guy, having unusually ferocious battle skills and unusual weapons and healing abilities. He also seems to have some idea of what's actually going on between the Loa and the Teotl, who, as it turns out, are not gods, but two separate alien races (though similar) who have unusual shape-shifting powers, but have lost their technology 300 years earlier as well. And they both want the Ma Wi Jung and understand that John DeBrun is the key to this mysterious weapon.

As the Azteca besiege Capital City, John and Pepper and a crew take a desperate ship voyage to the "north" to acquire the Ma Wi Jung and turn the tide of battle.

I haven't read much if any sci-fi in 25 years or so, so I have no idea if this is typical of what's being done. I found it fascinating. The depth of Buckell's imagination is nothing short of astonishing. The characterizations are complex, but so is the sociology. Not only has he created a complex world with multiple religions and cultures, but language and behaviors, all within a universe that has a complicated history as well.

The last third of the book is the big payoff, absolutely riveting. I found the first part a little hard to get into, but it was worth it. Buckell teases the reader, careful not to reveal too much up front, so what the reader gets is layer after layer of mystery, which can be a bit frustrating, although it all comes clear by the end. Not only does it come clear, but it sets up an apparent universe of potential stories and sequels. I am looking forward to his next novel, Ragamuffin, just to see what happens next.

For scifi fans, I would think this is a must-read. For people who aren't into sci-fi, I still recommend it. It's a rich, textured novel that, for me at least, is highly original and entertaining.

Mark Terry


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