John DeBrun is literally a man with no past. Washed up on the seashore 27 years ago with no memory and only the chain around his neck to tell him his name, John has managed to build a life for himself, despite his terrible handicap. With his wife, Shanta, and son, Jerome, he lives the life of a coastal fisherman on the island world of Nanagada, suffering through nightmares and a feeling of deep loss as he tries to make new memories to fill the hole left by his amnesia.
That all changes, though, when the Azteca on the other side of the Wicked High Mountains invade, looking for slaves and sacrifices for their strange, alien gods, the Teotl. Forced to flee before the invading army, John heads for Capitol City without his family, determined to join up with the mongoose-men, the best fighting force the Nanagadans have to offer. He’s hunted by both the terrifying Teotl and a brutal man named Pepper, for reasons he can neither remember nor understand. It’s up to John to find some way to stop the Azteca, regain his lost memories, and save his family, all while trying to stay alive.
Nanagada is a colony planet of Earth, but the reasons why this branch of humanity has ended up there, or what they were meant to do, have been lost hundreds of years ago. With the flavor of the Caribbean woven throughout the story, Buckell paints a vivid world full of diverse people, with strange enemies, and even stranger friends. John is a strong man bent under by the force of his unknown past, and the fate of his family. A rare figure in speculative fiction, he’s a black man trying to make his way in a world he doesn’t remember. He shows emotion freely, genuinely loves his wife and son, and is doing his damnedest to either save them or make someone pay, hard.
Pepper is someone from John’s past, a walking, talking killing machine with dreads, who has a secret soft spot for lost causes and hopeless people. Haidan is a man of honor, the General of the mongoose-men charged with protecting Nanagada, and weighed down by responsibility and a creeping sickness. Oaxyctl is an Azteca who befriends John, madly driven by his bloodthirsty gods to get the secrets from John’s memory any way he can. And Prime Minister Dihana is a shrewd, tough young woman determined to keep her people alive while at the same time bringing them back out of the dark ages. All these characters and more make for a riveting tale.
There are several recognizable influences in the book. The Azteca are modeled after the Aztecs of South America, the alien Loa that many in Capitol City worship are references to the practice of voodoo in Haiti and other areas, and even the Rastafarians briefly mentioned come from Jamaica. This mix of religions, peoples, and historical references makes for a rich and varied background against which the main story takes place. It is rare to find an author with a deft touch for so many unusual cultures, but Buckell pulls it off beautifully, probably with plenty of help from his own Caribbean upbringing.
The tech in Crystal Rain remains relatively low key up until the very end, turning the focus on the main players instead of the shiny machines as some authors do. What tech does appear has an almost steampunk quality at times, with soaring airships, armored locomotives, and a steamer ship that can pop out treads and crawl over land. There is also a hair-raising tech scene towards the end that brings to mind something that happened in the Matrix, but I don’t want to spoil it by giving away details. Just read the last few chapters with care.
Crystal Rain is a fascinating and memorable experience, and a great opening for the start of Buckell’s first series. The only problem I had at times was the cant with which some of the characters spoke, but it’s an adjustment that comes quickly once the story picks up. If you’re into adventure, betrayal, grotesque aliens, strange technologies and a life or death struggle, go pick up Crystal Rain immediately. And while you’re at it, pick up the next two books, Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose. This is a series worth reading.
Check out Tobias Buckell’s website where you can read the first 1/3 of Crystal Rain for FREE! or follow him on Twitter @tobiasbuckell
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