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Book Review: Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Genre: Science Fiction
ISBN: 0765350904
ISBN-13: 9780765350909
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 384pp
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC (TOR)
Pub. Date: May 2007

Imagine yourself in the Caribbean. Think of the sandy beaches, the blue of the ocean, and the jungle filled with palm trees. Think of the people, and their funny pidgin English, varicolored skin, and laid back attitudes. Now transplant the scene in your mind to a far away planet that is exactly like what you are picturing, except that most technology has been lost. It is a pleasant scene with a dastardly twist. Caribbean-born author Tobias Buckell has taken the tropic of our dreams and turned it into a place fraught with peril in his science fiction debut, Crystal Rain.

Crystal Rain tells the story of John deBrun (through multiple points of view), a man who has lost his memory, yet retains an exceptional ability to create maps in his mind. A family man, deBrun uses his skill to be an exceptional fisherman. But fate has more in store. The Azteca, a fierce race of people who have returned to the blood sacrifice of the Aztecs of old Earth history, have come over the mountains, bent on seeking the subjugation of the peaceful Nanagadans. Separated from his family, deBrun must go on a quest to the far north to seek the Ma Wi Jung and the return of his memories, in order to save his land, and get his revenge on the Azteca. In the midst of this, there is something going on between the gods of the humans, the Teotl and the Loa, physical gods worshiped by most of the humans. Their machinations provide a third twist to the story, with the enigma of Pepper providing a fourth.

Buckell�s story blended just the right amounts of adventure, mystery, and emotion to create a fast-paced and exciting story. The lost mysteries of the old-fathers (of which John deBrun�s quest to find the real driving force behind the plot) bring the reader into a world both familiar and eerily strange. Buckell creates a believable setting for a civilization whose grand technologies were lost. Unlike other speculative novels of the same type, Buckell�s technologies are logical and appropriate for the time period in which he sets the story, four hundred years after the loss of technology sent them back to an earlier culture. Airships exist, but they are dirigibles, and steam power is also in use. Guns also continue, but are limited. Farming and fishing are primary trades for the people. These technologies make sense in a world that once had them, but lost them due to catastrophe. The knowledge remained to some extent, and so engineering feats were possible, but they were limited in scope.

The characters of Crystal Rain are fascinating. Buckell has used his own Caribbean background to give his characters a pidgin English language that makes sense. Some readers will find it choppy and difficult, especially when pronouns are used in odd places, or sentence structure seems illogical to what we were taught in school. But unlike other authors, Buckell�s pidgin is consistent, and follows a pattern. Other times when I have read authors who tried to give their science fiction characters a pidgin language, it never really seemed consistent or logical. Buckell has simply used an existing one he knows, and placed it in the story. As I said, some readers will find this difficult. It took me a small time to see the logical nature of the speech. When John (who speaks standard English) speaks to a character who speaks pidgin, it can be difficult for the reader to make the transition back and forth, or from in the same way from dialogue to description. But after a few of the short chapters, the reader will be able to move past it, and come to enjoy the unique nature given to the dialogue by the use of the pidgin.

The novel is rife with spelling errors outside of the dialogue. Within the dialogue, it makes sense for some words to be condensed or spelled differently. Pidgin is always a move toward simplification of the language, not a complication. (Phone texting is a similar sort pidgin or simplification of English.) But the spelling errors occur in the descriptive portions of the novel, even in some key names and places. This caused me some confusion, and was a bit jarring as I read. I had to turn the page back a couple of times to see where the mistake had been made, just so I could be sure I understood what was supposed to be going on.

Crystal Rain is a strong debut. Tobias Buckell has taken the lost civilization genre of science fiction and created a wonderful story. The characters are mysterious and compelling, and John deBrun cuts a dashing and heroic figure whose own personal worries give the reader an emotional connection. But the characters are not deeply emotional. There is some philosophical discussion, but it is mostly surface level. Mostly, this story is an adventure story, with a mystery of space and time providing cohesion to the plot.

This novel is strong on action, and deeply mired in suspense and mystery. Crystal Rain is a rousing story of adventure, and speculative fiction readers shouldn�t miss it.

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