Tobias S. Buckell,
Crystal Rain
(Tor, 2006)

I keep running into new writers in speculative fiction, many of whom are extraordinarily talented and inventive. Among the latest to cross my desk is Tobias S. Buckell, whose first novel Crystal Rain is, as he himself describes it, "Caribbean steampunk."

The story takes place on a planet shared by the inhabitants of Nanagada, a nation whose inhabitants are largely of Caribbean descent, and the Azteca, whose culture, not surprisingly, harks back to ancient Mexico, complete with bloodthirsty gods, the Teotl. The two countries are separated by the Wicked High Mountains, and Nanagada holds the one pass that provides access. However, the Azteca have spent generations digging a tunnel through the Wicked Highs and are now embarking on a major invasion with the goal of total conquest. The Nanagadans can look forward only to becoming slaves or sacrifices, unless they can recover a mysterious weapon known to their own gods, the Loa.

The key to recovering this weapon, Ma Wi Jung, is John DeBrun, a sailor who washed up on the shore of Nanagada 27 years before with no memories. There are reasons why DeBrun has no memories, and why he does not age, and why he has some other unusual characteristics, all tied up with the Ma Wi Jung and the history of the oldfathers who settled the planet.

Buckell has put together an absorbing adventure story with the added richness of an economically rendered culture that is outside the usual cast of science fiction. Backstory and history are equally subtly done and in no way impede the novel's flow. The real joy, aside from the story itself, however, is the dialogue with its strong Afro-Caribbean flavor, which Buckell has rendered clearly and faithfully without making it incomprehensible.

The characters are strongly and skillfully drawn -- DeBrun, who, whatever he was in the past, now treasures his wife and child above everything; the mysterious Pepper, a swashbuckling character who is also a murderously efficient and seemingly superhuman killing machine; Oaxyctl, the Azteca spy sent to pry the access codes for Ma Wi Jung from DeBrun (a task, as it turns out, that is truly hopeless); Dihana, the young prime minister of Nanagada who must battle the invading Azteca on one hand and her own Council and the Loa on the other; Edward Haidan, the general who must try to save Nanagada with no resources -- all become real people. All in all, very well done.

Buckell has been called "a signature voice of Afro-Caribbean speculative fiction." I don't know that I'd go that far, especially in regard to a "genre" that has, as far as I know, two practitioners, but I will say that he should be on your "must read" list.

review by
Robert M. Tilendis

15 March 2008

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