Tobias S. Buckell
Nanagada prepares to be invaded by the Azteca, a race of people who search for human sacrifices for their gods. The soldiers of the Nanagada, the mongoose-men, make ready for the impending invasion one of their spies warned the Nanagada about. The Nanagada fear they will not be able to withstand a full scale invasion. John deBrun is not of the Nanagada, but he has lives among them for 27 year years, taken a wife, fathered a son. He has no memory of how he got to Nanagada or who he was before he arrived. This tells the discerning reader, of course, that John deBrun's past will be of vital importance to the storyline of Crystal Rain. When we first meet John it is in a quiet moment with his wife and we learn that while his wife has graying hair, John looks exactly the same as he did when they first met. This tidbit of information comes in a quiet moment and when the action starts we may forget that detail, but it is a hint of things to come and who John deBrun is.
When the Azteca attack everything changes for the Nanagada. Their people are slaughtered and sacrificed. Families are separated. John is initially captured because the Azteca believe that he holds the key to something called the Ma Wi Jung, though exactly what the Ma Wi Jung is not explained. The mongoose-men try to keep the Nanagada safe until a way to stop the Azteca can be found. General Haidan of the Nanagada has a last ditch plan to take a ship north to the ice fields and find what could be a secret weapon, the Ma Wi Jung.
From the beginning of Crystal Rain Buckell reveals that this is a deeply science fiction world. A character in the prologue may have some sort of nanotechnology, and later we find that the Nanagada are refugees from some long ago war in which terrible weapons were used and humanity escaped through a wormhole before closing it in hopes that it would stop the aliens attacking them. The technology has been lost and the Nanagada are essentially a low-tech people with hints of old technology and some long lived "old fathers" who still have the nanotech from hundreds of years prior.
But while Nanagada has its roots deep in science fiction, this is a localized tale of warfare and adventure. The first hundred pages of Crystal Rain feel like pure introduction. We learn of John deBrun, we learn of the Azteca, we see the attacks begin. But despite the impending invasion and the horrors just on the edge of perception, Crystal Rain drags its way through the opening third of the novel. There is no narrative urgency or true excitement until midway through the novel when two things happen: A man named Pepper shows up on the scene, capable of great violence; and John leads the expedition north to find the Ma Wi Jung. The real mover of Crystal Rain is the expedition north because until John is on the move and until the Nanagada search for a weapon against the Azteca there is no real storytelling movement. Sure, characters move from place to place, but until John goes north, the movement has no emotion.
Once John deBrun heads north to find the Ma Wi Jung Crystal Rain picks up and becomes an exciting book to read. The search, the revelations, the storytelling are all top notch in the last half of the book. Buckell delivers, at the end, a deeply satisfying conclusion to Crystal Rain with the promise of more story to tell about this world and this conflict. The conflict of Crystal Rain is done, but the story isn't over. We know that Ragamuffin comes next to continue some of the story of Crystal Rain and by the end of Crystal Rain, we’re itching for Ragamuffin.
Tobias Buckell brings the Caribbean flair of his own heritage to Crystal Rain. We know that we live on a planet where the majority of humanity is not white. The odds of any science fiction world being lily white is highly unlikely and while some science fiction writers tackle this (Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy has intentional cultural segregation in its colonization), Buckell brings the reader a different perspective and a different culture to look at: the island culture of the Caribbean. The Nanagada are the descendants of the Caribbean islanders, dark skinned and talking in a particular dialect of English. Buckell has the dialogue of the Nanagada liberally flavored with this dialect and while it is a bit jarring at the start, midway through the novel it feels perfectly natural. Our heroes, except perhaps John deBrun, are dark skinned (deBrun's name suggests a Dutch heritage). Pepper is absolutely a black man. While this does very little to impact the storytelling because it honestly does not matter what skin color a character is as far as what actions are taken, it is important to see different skin tones in SFF fiction.
Crystal Rain may have had a semi-weak opening, but by the end of the novel the story was ripping all over the place and there was raw emotion and exciting moments and hints of future and past wars and Crystal Rain ended on a very high mark that makes it easy to overlook the earlier flaws of the novel. All flaws are forgotten by the end. The novel is well worth sticking through the first hundred pages or so because things very much improve after that. Crystal Rain whets my appetite for Ragamuffin and the thought of Buckell taking on Space Opera in Ragamuffin is an exciting one. Bring on the next novel!
Reading copy provided courtesy of Tobias Buckell.