Pros: Stunning world; amazing characters; very organic feel; highly unusual
Rating: 5 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Tobias S. Buckell.
Twenty-seven years ago, John deBrun washed up on the shores of Brungstun with no memory of who he was or where he was from. Some kind of instinct pushed him to attempt a journey to the far, frozen North, where he nearly died, but he returned without answers. He married and had a son, yet his nightmares never faded and he never remembered anything more about himself.
One day the lands of Nanagada are invaded by their old enemies, the Azteca, and the Azteca’s terrifying, alien gods: the Teotl. The Azteca capture Brungstun, but John escapes with the help of an Azteca traitor—a double-spy who seeks to wrest a set of valuable access codes from John’s missing memories so the Teotl will have access to something called the Ma Wi Jung. John believes his wife and son to be dead, but his son, Jerome, was saved by a deadly, inhuman, frightening man called Pepper who claims to be an old friend of John’s.
Meanwhile, Dihana, the Prime Minister of Capitol City and the Nanagada, works furiously with General Haidan of the mongoose-men and the infuriating Loa to protect the Nanagada from the vast armies of the Azteca. But unless something changes, it’s just a matter of time until they fail, and all their people are enslaved or, worse, sacrificed to the Teotl.
It’s difficult for me to believe that Crystal Rain is Tobias S. Buckell’s debut novel—it’s that good. The feel is incredibly organic, as though the world unwinds naturally before us. It feels as though the reader is experiencing the story of John and the Nanagada rather than reading a constructed fiction. Rather than presenting us with artificial cliff-hangers and twists, Buckell allows any surprises to come out in natural pieces throughout the story, such that if you figure something out ahead of time there’s no feeling of let-down when it’s revealed, because the story doesn’t rely on that twist of surprise for its pacing and interest.
Buckell manages to do several things extremely well that even very experienced writers tend to have difficulty pulling off. He tells the story through quite a few different points of view, yet I never feel confused as to who’s doing the telling; each character is quite unique, distinct, and fully fleshed out. Stranger yet he manages to use one of John’s enemies (his accompanying would-be interrogator) as a point of view character without spoiling the plot, ruining the pacing, alienating the reader, or otherwise throwing off the book.
He has his characters speak in their own unusual dialects and rhythms—usually a terrible thing for a writer to attempt as it swiftly gets old and almost never adds anything—yet it works. It only took me a brief time to get used to it, then it felt more and more natural until I found myself thinking in it at times. The use of dialect is extremely consistent, and as a matter of characterization dialect is every bit as important in this book as any other measure.
But wait, there’s more that Buckell does that most writers couldn’t pull off. Nanagada is a colony settled by space-farers. Due to various past events, it retains very little of the technology of its ancestors and has, at best, an imperfect understanding of even those few items it possesses. The Teotl and Loa are aliens worshiped as gods, and some bits of technology aren’t quite as lost as everyone believes them to be. In many writers’ hands this would lead to a very mixed-up genre feel, a confusion of identity that would rob the story of some of its potential for a consistent, strong world-feel. In Buckell’s hands it all comes together in a heady melange that I found it difficult to extricate myself from—every time I put the book down I found my head trapped in thoughts of the world and its characters.
I’m not sure I can adequately describe the number of ways in which this book succeeds. Suffice it to say, I look forward to devouring each of Buckell’s future novels as they come out!