Book Review: ‘Crystal Rain’ by Tobias Buckell

Tobias Buckell's 'Crystal Rain'

‘Crystal Rain’ by Tobias Buckell (US HBK 0765312271, Tor Books, February 2006)

The mellow pace of life in the bucolic peninsula of Nanagada is about to be disrupted. Across the Wicked High Mountains, the warlike Azteca are sweeping into the placid little nation, having bypassed the bottleneck pass that kept them from invading in force. They seek land and crops and wealth – but most of all, they seek sacrifices to their living gods, the Teotl.

The Nanagadans have long feared such an invasion, but had believed it improbable with the pass maintaining the status quo. A fragile peace has been maintained by patrols, spies and double agents on both sides of the mountains, but now the balance has shifted greatly in the favour of the Azteca. The remote outlying villages are soon over-run, their inhabitants slaughtered or enslaved by the advancing hordes. At the far end of the peninsula, Capitol City grimly prepares to defend a siege that it knows it cannot win.

John deBrun is one of many whose comfortable life is torn apart by the invasion. He lives just outside Brungstun, the closest town to the mountains and the first to fall to the Azteca. He himself is captured early on, and rescued from sacrifice by Oaxyctl, an Azteca double agent. Believing his wife and son to be dead or enslaved, he and his rescuer travel towards Capitol City just ahead of the first wave of attackers, first on foot, then by airship. John seeks to join the elite fighters of Nanagada, the mongoose-men, and exact his revenge on the Azteca in the coming siege.

But deBrun doesn’t really know who or what he is. His family life of the last two decades is all he remembers, an amnesiac fog obscuring all events prior to him being found washed up on the beaches of Brungstun. But allies and enemies alike know the truth of deBrun’s past, and the race is on to befriend or capture him, so that he may be used as the key to an ancient mystery – the Ma Wi Jung, a technological relic left in the frozen Northlands by the ‘old-fathers’, the founders of human civilisation on the planet. In the meantime, Nanagada descends deeper into chaos, and there is little hope to be had for the locals in the face of the relentless onslaught of the Azteca. With deBrun’s arrival, the leaders of Capitol City are handed one last thread of hope – a thread on which hangs the fate of the entire planet.

The planet Nanagada is a classy exercise in world-building, and the measured revealing of the back-story plays an important part in the development of the story and its characters. The people of the world have largely forgotten their origins except as fragments of myths and legends, which will clue in the experienced sf reader long before he or she has his suspicions confirmed.

Nanagada is a colony world, cut off from the universe at large by local conflict; the Teotl (and the Loa, their Nanagadan equivalents) are not gods, but two races of aliens who stumbled across the remote colony and made it a prize to be squabbled over using the humans as pawns and tools. The resulting war closed off the wormhole that brought the colonists, destroyed much of the advanced technologies that they had with them, and effectively knocked the planet back into the equivalent of the late Middle Ages.

There’s a lot of detail for such an economical novel, to the extent that the back-story can be a little distracting from the main narrative at times, and as such some of the ideas seem left a little underdeveloped. The occasional trope is dropped casually, never to be picked up again – at least not in this book.

As far as narrative and action are concerned, Crystal Rain has a selection of standard plot devices at its core: the Ma Wi Jung is the Maguffin; John deBrun is the man-with-no-memory and key-to-it-all; the Azteca and their gods are the encroachment of destruction and disorder. All the ingredients are available for a thoroughly decent workmanlike science fictional adventure yarn; serve on a well-built world, garnish with some swashbuckling and derring-do from a revenge-driven lead character. But Buckell has gone above and beyond the necessary, raising what could have been a solid escapist planetary romance to the level of a complex and emotive story that asks searching questions about determinism and fate.

It’s the characterisation that does it – although for much of the book deBrun, despite being the hero and lead character, is not the most compelling and complex player in the narrative. Indeed, until he begins to regain his memories toward the end of the novel, he is understandably a little wooden, a living automaton driven by misfortune to seek revenge for his family. It is his ‘rescuer’, Oaxyctl, who provides the tension and intrigue at the character level, while the escalating hostilities provide the framework for the human dramas to be played out within. For Oaxyctl is far from being the altruistic Azteca turncoat he initially appears to be.

Coerced by one of the Teotl and charged with capturing deBrun and obtaining the key to the Ma Wi Jung from him, Oaxyctl is a man divided within himself. Considered in his theocratic homeland to have been born under an unlucky sign, his only route out of a life of peasant drudgery was to become a spy, working among the Nanagadans as a defector, all the while feeding back information to his masters over the mountains. The rational part of him doesn’t believe in gods, but the physical actuality of the Teotl and the unlucky hands that his life has dealt him conspire to make him a fatalist, believing that only by appeasing the gods can he escape the doom that awaits him. This tug of war between rationalism and determinism is not only the core of Oaxyctl’s character, but the core of the entire novel too.

Capturing and killing deBrun would be a relatively simple matter, at least in comparison to Oaxyctl’s true mission, which is to keep deBrun alive until he can extract the Ma Wi Jung codes from him. Frequent mishaps keep snatching opportune moments away from him, and in the meantime he becomes close to deBrun, whose influence fans the flames of the Azteca’s internal dichotomy. On a number of occasions deBrun casually saves his life or unwittingly hands him an advantage, and these actions only make it harder for Oaxyctl to concentrate on his mission.

Throughout the middle section of the book, it is Oaxyctl’s angst and indecision that keeps the reader engaged, right from the moment he latches on to deBrun. From a very early stage, the reader is aware that deBrun is travelling in the company of a man whose intent is to torture him for information. DeBrun’s ignorance of this fact (and of the information so desired by many factions) only adds to the drama. The underlying theme is free will, and the ability to make the right choices in the face of adversity and pressure – even when that choice may destroy the person who makes it, or much that he or she holds dear.

This deception and double-dealing is mirrored throughout the story, which is littered with reversals of fortune. Right up until the closing chapters, hitherto unrevealed aspects of certain characters make their appearances. Even the second-tier characters have nasty decisions to make (and consequences to deal with), and no-one makes it through the book unscathed, whether physically or emotionally. Indeed, Buckell has very carefully avoided a fairytale ending, closing instead with a bittersweet détente and the struggles of the characters to rebuild their world and their lives, which is all the more satisfying for its plausibility.

Crystal Rain can be read as an sf adventure story with a uniquely lush multicultural backdrop, but also as a story of real people struggling against adversity from within and without – one which just happens to be set on a distant planet. The tightrope between entertaining storytelling and literary finesse is a hard line to walk even for an experienced novelist; to see it done this well in a début book is a rare treat. The Caribbean flavours set it apart from the pack, providing not only a wealth of mythology and imagery to draw upon, but also a story where diversity is so far to the foreground as to be a given. Buckell has set himself a very high benchmark to pass with his follow-up.


[Full disclosure – Tobias Buckell is a co-blogger at Futurismic. As such, I made great efforts in the name of objectivity to bring to light any flaws with Crystal Rain. That I found so few might be (justifiably) attributed to my abilities as a reviewer as much as any inherent unconscious bias or predisposition. However, I am positive that had I received this book as reader or reviewer, having never even heard of Tobias before, I would still commend it to science fiction readers of every stripe. It’s quite simply a great read, and well deserving of the praise accorded it by many others before me.]

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