Crystal Rain is a most entertaining action-adventure saga set on a "lost colony" world, in which the descendants of humans and aliens fight over a fragile steampunk civilization nestled within a peninsula separated from its mainland by a mountain range called the Wicked Highs, which must have been named by Ashton Kutcher. ("Dude, those are some wicked high mountains!") Considering the number of large-scale space operas I've been reading of late, in which characters flit across galaxies via wormholes and the fate of the universe itself lies in the balance, I really admired this more modestly mounted story about a planetbound regional conflict. Though I have a few issues with some of Toby Buckell's choices in this, his debut, I have no reservation in recommending it. There's a great old-school pulp-adventure essence to Crystal Rain — an essence completely nailed by Todd Lockwood's sumptuous cover, I must say — that will really bring out your inner geek.
John deBrun lives in the small coastal fishing village of Brungstun on the peninsula of Nanagada. He has no memory of his youth at all, including how he lost his left hand; its stump now supports a snazzy hook. There is only a vague memory of being washed ashore, after an ill-fated sea voyage to the uncharted far north. Since then, he has done his best to lead a normal life with a wife and son. In adventure stories, it's a dead giveaway that when a protagonist cannot remember his past, that means he was someone important involved in important things. And that he's due to have that memory block lifted in fairly dramatic fashion.
Nanagada is inhabited by human descendents of colonists who lost most of their technology generations ago. Sharing the land with them are the loa, enigmatic aliens who prefer to keep a low profile, and who are revered by many. Across the Wicked High Mountains live the Azteca, about whom little is known apart from their almost boundless aggressiveness and seemingly insatiable desire to invade and conquer Nanagada at the bequest of the teotl, another alien race whom they consider their gods. Though the Azteca — who maintain their ancient Earthly ancestors' ritual of slicing out hearts — have been held back successfully in the past due to effective defense of the mountains' only pass, the tide is turning. The pass has proven to be Nanagada's Maginot Line; the Azteca have bypassed it by tunneling under the mountains, a process that has taken a full century! Now they stream into the peninsula in their thousands, as panicked villagers race for protection to the walled Capitol City at Nanagada's very tip.
The invasion sets the story in motion, but sadly it's where I found the book's biggest plot flaw. This mountain pass is, we are told, the only way through the range. And the Azteca have been effectively held back every time they've tried to invade through it. Until now, after they've dug the tunnel. But...but...they have airships. Airships that can fly over the mountains. So...why did they even bother with digging the tunnel when they have, you know, the airships? Seems to me all they would have had to do is fly over the mountains several miles south of the pass, or even north, out over the ocean and around the range completely. Then they could have doubled back and struck the pass from the rear, thus allowing their foot soldiers to swarm through unchallenged. Why take a hundred years to dig a tunnel under a mountain range when the other would have taken a couple of days at the most? Especially when they're getting technological help from the teotl? Seems, you know, easier.
Well, anyway. John deBrun is nearly killed when the Azteca attack Brungstun, but is saved in the nick by Oaxyctl, pronounced "o-ash-k-tul." Oaxyctl is an Azteca double agent, a spy captured by the Nanagadans and forced to work for them. But now he is under orders from one of the teotl itself to locate John deBrun at all costs. It seems deBrun knows (although he doesn't know he knows) the whereabouts of something called the Ma Wi Jung, as well as the codes that will allow it to do whatever it does that the teotl considers vitally important. Oaxyctl befriends John as they travel to Capitol City, a trek that allows Buckell to deliver the book's first certifiably kickass action scene, an airship chase and sky battle. The Azteca spy is only awaiting the first opportunity to torture the codes out of John. But even Oaxyctl doesn't know another player is looking for John and the codes, a mysterious lone-wolf type stealth fighter guy with numerous evident nano enhancements named...
Okay, I guess this wouldn't have seemed so off-kilter to me had "Pepper" not been the name I gave my very first puppy when I was five years old. But it represents something else that bugged me reading the novel: Buckell's bizarre choices of nomenclature. Call me crazy, but "Pepper" just doesn't conjure up images of a badass who effortlessly kills entire gangs of men with his bare hands (teotl take slightly more effort), like someone out of an especially violent anime. That isn't Buckell's only strange choice, though. Capitol City's municipal law enforcement are called the ragamuffins, a label that — to me, anyway — evokes hordes of dusty-cheeked Charles Dickens orphans scampering down West End streets and begging for more gruel. Nanagada's militia are called the mongoose-men, a slightly more comprehensible name, metaphorically speaking. (They rid the land of snakes, so to speak.) But...Pepper? Fer cripes sake, Toby. Whiskey...Tango...Foxtrot?
Given all the nitpicks I've laid out, why does Crystal Rain still get a three-star bottom line from me? Because what Buckell does right, I'm happy to say he does breathtakingly right. Most effective is the evocation of place. His setting feels alive. There is real texture to Nanagada, its people, villages, back alleys and crowded markets. You can almost feel the humidity. Buckell's use of the sea as a critical setting is brilliantly handled, too, whether it's in the nearby islands where John's son has gone to hide from the invaders, or in later scenes as John captains a vessel back to the north in the hopes the Ma Wi Jung has what it takes to save the Nanagadans. Back at Capitol City, where the prime minister Dihana and the thousands under her protection await the coming hordes, a slowburn suspense is built as they hear of village after village along the coast falling like dominoes to the Azteca. That John, Oaxyctl, Dihana, and yes, even Pepper are such well-rounded and involving characters helps immeasurably. Short chapters allow for an efficient pace, keeping the story mostly fat-free. The story wraps up in exciting fashion, as any good adventure should.
I think, on balance, most readers will enjoy Crystal Rain immensely. It has a sensawunda factor that will probably cancel out its spate of first-novel flubs in the minds of most fans. I can definitely say that there's nothing else on the racks right at this moment quite like it, and that Tobias Buckell is a name to add to your "watch this writer" list. As long as he avoids naming future characters anything like Spike, Bowser, Brandy or Spot, I think he should have an easy time working out all his kinks in time for the sequel.