Pros: Stunning universe & characters; gripping story; unusual and unexpected
Cons: More! Need more!
Rating: 5 out of 5
Review book (uncorrected proof) courtesy of Tobias S. Buckell.
Expected publication date: August 19, 2008.
Tobias Buckell became one of my favorite authors with his novels Crystal Rain (a stunning debut novel) and its follow-up Ragamuffin. He immediately established himself as a science fiction writer willing to explore highly unusual concepts and worlds and able to impart a strong, unique, and fascinating flavor to every page. Those two books and now Sly Mongoose are set in the same universe, but each book is new and very different.
Sly Mongoose is set several generations after Ragamuffin, and our old friend Pepper is back in the middle of the latest crisis. As always the alien machinery inside of him has caused him to outlast and outlive everyone around him, so he’s the only character you’ll remember from previous books. The descendants of the Azteca fled New Anegada and their alien masters, and now live in floating cities set about a deadly planet called Chilo.
Lest this call to mind high-tech or heavenly abodes reminiscent of clouds and redolent with peace, some of these cities are falling apart. Their inhabitants are poor and can’t afford new parts for the machines they depend on. The inhabitants of Yatapek rely heavily on a mining machine that works the surface below them, but only certain young men can still fit into the heavy groundsuits required to survive the surface conditions and service the machine. Fourteen-year-old Timas is on one of these repair runs when he’s certain he spots an alien on the surface. As he risks his and his companion’s lives to confirm his discovery, disaster strikes: a stranger crash-lands on the city, sending a deadly hail of debris falling to the planet below.
Pepper was returning home after a mission, only to fall afoul of a deadly League plot. He bails from orbit and is nearly killed by his landing in Yatapek. That’s nothing compared to what begins to happen to the other cities floating about Chilo, however, as a strange invasion sweeps toward Yatapek and the secrets hiding beneath it on the surface. Pepper came to warn the people of Chilo, but now he’s forced to help them fight a war—not just for their own survival, but the survival of all intelligent life.
It’s hard for me to know where to begin with Sly Mongoose. I’ve said so many wonderful things about Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin that it’s almost tough to know how to follow those reviews up. It doesn’t help that I was so swept up in the events of this book that the writing fell away and I lost most conscious awareness of it. Of course, just pointing that out should tell you how much I loved this book.
One of the things I love about Buckell’s work is that his books in this series have enough similarity of style, exploration, themes, etc. (not to mention the fantastic character of Pepper!) to satisfy someone who’s looking for more of ‘the same’. However, each one is also quite different from the previous books, so you certainly won’t feel bored with the material! Each book takes place some time after the previous one, in this case several generations later. Each book explores a different part of the universe, although at the same time it takes on the consequences of previous plots. So there’s a ton of new material while also a few familiar threads to hold onto. This also means that the books can stand alone, although you’ll have an easier time following some things if you know what came before.
The characters are complex and interesting. As usual it could be argued that Pepper is actually not the main character, although perhaps he is more so in Sly Mongoose than in the last two books. This is a great approach, because Pepper’s certainly not your standard hero, nor even your standard anti-hero, and it’s often both useful and important to see events through other people’s eyes as well.
In many ways Buckell’s books hearken back to an earlier style of hard SF that drops you straight into highly alien situations and lets you absorb it all, rather than starting from something familiar. They also contain a strong element of exploration with regard to alien sentience, societal and governmental structures, and so on. Most refreshingly, he explores all sorts of positive and negative aspects of these things without holding up a sharp agenda. It’s writing that makes you think, not writing that preaches. He also writes with an incredibly unique flavor that I’ve not seen in any other author’s books, so if you’re looking for something new, his books are a great bet.
On top of all that, the action is imaginative, intense, and a ton of fun. He’s also gotten deep into his universe by this book, so the mild tendency toward exposition in Ragamuffin is gone. If you enjoy science fiction, it’s hard to go wrong with Sly Mongoose and its predecessors!