Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: Crystal Rain

Back in July I won a few prizes at the KGB Fantastic Fiction raffle, which auctioned off various items and services provided by participating SF authors and editors. One of the prizes was a signed, hardcover edition of Tobias Buckell's debut novel, Crystal Rain. As I had been eyeing his sophomore title in the same universe, Ragamuffin, around the same time, this win came at an opportune moment for me to become acquainted with the earlier book in this loosely-connected series.

I'm not usually a fan of steampunk-leaning sci-fi, except when the world-building of the novel supports the dated technology in use. In other words, if there is a reasonable explanation for the presence of floating dirigibles and steam-powered locomotives in the world I'm being introduced to--and if that explanation is grounded in good, ol' fashioned, SF'nal traditions (whether fantastical or not)--then I'm all onboard as an open-minded reader.

Luckily, such is the case here with Cyrstal Rain. What's more, Buckell paints his set-back world of Nanagada in the rich, warm colors of Caribbean culture and patois that immediately sets the novel apart from similar steampunk sci-fi novels of this ilk. As someone who's family is from the Caribbean (Dominican Republic, by way of my father), who grew up in the South Bronx surrounded by other Caribbean nationals, and who is married to a girl from Kingston, the flavor of the novel was like a nostalgic trip back through my childhood and early adult life. In the writing workshops I've attended, there was a tendency of criticism towards writing dialogue with thick accents and ethnic affectations. Usually, this criticism hailed from the more, shall we say, "Anglo-Saxon" elements in the classroom, where the sense is one of unease and cultural vulnerability whenever a new writer attempts to infuse his narratives with color and multicultural flavor. Since I come from a Dominican father and Anglo mother, you can see why "multicultural" is the one theme I'm most comfortable using.

But I can see why some readers might have a problem with the characters in Buckell's world speaking in the manner that they do. For someone not used to the Caribbean's different patois and its cultures, this can be offsetting enough to make the earlier passages hard going. But I for one did not have this problem. I was amazed at first, then delighted, and finally awestruck by how well the islands-tinted dialogue actually works within the narrative. And I'm confident that more open-minded and sophisticated readers will leave with the same impression.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg of what this novel offers by way of cultural immersion. This is the very first sci-fi novel I myself have read which blends cherished staples of the genre (such as air chases, conflicts between rival alien races, and forbidden advanced technology) with authentic Caribbean characters and sensibilities. The people of Nanagada farm the land in the traditions of their Earth ancestors, they have an affinity for the sea in much the same way as their Caribbean counterparts, and even celebrate Carnival in much the same fashion as it has been done here for centuries. Drawing from his own background, Buckell is one of the few *real* voices from this corner of the globe to make his presence known in the genre, and I thank him for it.

So, now, how is the book itself, you might be wondering? Well, to get it out of the way early: it was damn FANTASTIC!

Crystal Rain takes place in an unspecified distant future where humanity has encountered hostile alien races as they colonize and expand outward into space. The actual narrative itself, however, is set on the distant colony world of Nanagada--a planet that has been terraformed for human habitation. This attracts settlers from the area of the Caribbean back on Earth, who utilize the low-tech tools and practices of their forefathers to till the land and reap the oceans of its bounties. At some point in the past, however, hostilities between the Teotl and the Loa boil over, dragging humanity (who ally with the Loa) into the conflict. The battle is brought near Nanagada by way of a wormhole called "The Spindle" by locals, threatening to overtake humanity's colonies and even Earth itself. At some point in the past, the Old Fathers (enhanced and technologically advanced humans) made their stand at Nanagada and closed off the wormhole by way of a huge graviton bomb. Unfortunately, the EMP resulting from the blast knocked out all advanced technologies in and around Nanagada, stranding the few Old Fathers, Loa, and Teotl left on the wrong side of the wormhole, and plunging the poor farmers of Nanagada into a pre-industrial society.

By the time we join the narrative, several centuries have passed since this cataclysm, and Nanagandans are only just beginning to re-learn the secrets and technology lost with the Old Fathers. Enter John deBrun, a mysterious man found unconscious on the beach nearly three decades prior, who can remember his name but nothing else about his past. He is slightly less dark than the Caribbean-descended Nanagadans who find him, and speaks with a strange "northern" sounding accent. John is haunted by intense nightmares and visions that leave him with a burning desire to rediscover the memories he has lost. In the meantime, he settles in nearby Brungstun and eventually starts a family.

Until one day war breaks out between John's adopted people and the hordes of Teotl-allied "Aztecas" (cloned human stock) from over the Wicked High Mountains. For centuries the Teotl have been forced to live tech-less and all but powerless on their side of the mountains, festering and dreaming of the day they would get their revenge on the Loa and take over all of Nanagada. The Azteca, indoctrinated in the ancient pre-Colombian practices of Pan-American cultures, are bloodthirsty and ruthless, who seek only to amass many prisoners to satisfy their ritualistic ceremonies and please the bloodlust of their "gods", the Teotl.

When Azteca forces come streaming through the guarded Mafolie Pass one day and take over towns and villages on their way towards Capitol City, John deBrun is caught off guard. Separated from his wife and son, John must figure out some way of stopping the armies and rescuing his family. Along the way, a mysterious figure from John's past arrives and demands that his old friend take him to a buried technological wonder left behind by the Old Fathers. John is the key to its secrets, the only man on Nanagada who can awaken this potential weapon and use it to fight back the savage invaders. Unfortunately, the Teotl are aware of John's potential as well, and set in motion their own scheme to track him down and use his knowledge for their own design.

Crystal Rain is one of those tales that is slow to take off due to the various character view-points that must first be established and allowed to develop for the sake of an effective narrative. For the most part, these POV chapters work well, weaving disparate threads throughout the novel until they form an entertaining and cohesive tapestry that really ignites halfway through the narrative.

Clearly evident is Buckell's own development as a writer. He starts off a little shaky and wet-behind-the-ears in the first few chapters as he discovers his voice, but eventually transitions to an authoritative, richly-nuanced narrator with plenty of nifty tools at his disposal that hooks the reader and leaves him begging for more. The most effective of these tools is the slow leaking away of background exposition so that it doesn't come across as one massive infodump. As well, the technique of the amnesiac protagonist is one that has been done to death before, but Buckell ingeniously uses this crutch to sync fluidly with his slow info reveals, assuring that the reader learns the history and political scenarios of this strange, almost fantasy-like world at about the same pace that John himself learns more about his secretive past. It works beautifully in the end!

Speaking of which, I must point out that when the answers finally do arrive--especially regarding the true purpose of the technological wonder buried in the north--the more sci-fictional aspects of the story really come into the play, much to the enjoyment of this reader. If I thought the steampunkian aspects of the first half of the novel were well-done, if a tad cumbersome (Airship battles are not quite as much fun as they might sound), then the science-fictional reveals that come in the latter half more than make up for this. In fact, the second half is SO good and so enjoyable in what is revealed about the bigger picture universe Buckell has waiting in the curtains, that I am at a loss for why his name is not more recognizable than it is in the genre field. I can only imagine it is due to his relative "newbie" status on the SF stage, and not due to lack of accolades and appreciation from his peers and readers, which he has received aplenty for this first effort.

Crystal Rain is, by the author's own admission, his dedicated inclusion to the beloved oeuvre that is the Steampunk sub genre. I hear that his next book, Ragamuffin, is his ode to Space Opera. Since S.O. is my own personal fave, to say I'm bouncing off the walls excited to read this book is a criminal understatement!

Crystal Rain came as a big surprise to me, and I cannot sing its praises loud enough. I'm only taking away a few points for the uneven tone of the first few chapters, which in all honesty is just evidence of the author's initial stab at a novel, and no indication of any sense of ineptitude as a great storyteller overall. In fact, when you read the latter chapters and then reread the opening ones, the details actually makes MORE sense and fit better than one originally remembers. I have yet to write my own first novel, but when I do, I can only dream of achieving even a quarter of the proficiency Buckell has displayed here with his debut. Definitely a name to watch for in the future, and I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing the next two novels (already purchased!) in this series.


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