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Book Review: Sly Mongoose by Tobias Buckell

* Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera
* ISBN: 0765319209
* ISBN-13: 9780765319203
* Format: Hardcover, 320pp
* Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
* Pub. Date: August 19, 2008
* Author Website

Tobias Buckell has done it again! Sly Mongoose is a highly entertaining and energizing story. Pepper the nearly indestructible continues to delight, and Buckell’s vision of a science-based “Cloud City” is full realized.

Sly Mongoose, the third in a series of stand-alone novels set in the same universe, is set several generations after the events in Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. The Azteca have renounced their human sacrificing ways, and have settled on new planets, doing their very best to create a new way of life under a reformed religion. But as refugees, even ones with their own floating city, the Azteca are quite poor. Like Caribbean born author Tobias Buckell’s homeland, many of the people live a subsistence, second world life, while first world visitors make of their homes a vacation spot. The rich and the powerful are exploiting the poor Aztecan refugees.

In an opening scene that is absolutely unforgettable, Pepper crash lands on one of the floating cloud cities of the world of Chilo. But although the human weapon Pepper is scary enough, the thing he is running from is even more frightening. Space zombies, created by an airborne pathogen, are slowly taking over the cities of Chilo. It is up to Pepper and the ragged Azteca refugees to stop the them before they destroy all of Chilo and leave it open to being conquered by the League of Human Affairs.

Pepper is the Drizzt Do’Urden of the space age. An almost unstoppable weapon, skilled in all forms of fighting with the lightning quick reflexes and insight that make him untouchable, Pepper leads the Aztecas to fight against impossible odds. But the true hero of the story is not Pepper, but rather a young man of the Aztecas. Much of the story is told from his perspective, and Buckell gives the reader a character that must, at the tender age of fourteen, preserve his family by putting his life on the line everyday by going down to the boiling hot surface of Chilo. Where Pepper is the character we enjoy for his unstoppable and unflappable heroics, Timas is the character who is as human as we are. His faults and failings are like our own, and the reader will find himself hoping that he or she would rise to the occasion if in a situation like Timas’s.

Although Buckell continues to write excellent adventure, he has tried to branch out and give his characters deeper emotions. The react in very human ways, and in the end, we find that even Pepper is broken. All this only shows that as Buckell continues to write, his novels are only likely to get better.

I do have a few caveats about Sly Mongoose. For one, Timas several times goes out from the Azteca city, only to return a few pages later. It happens often enough that it becomes noticeable, and it seems that Buckell was repeating a sequence of events (albeit with different particulars) so that the ebb and flow of the plot got repetitious. Instead of a sine wave of action, the reader gets a circle.

Buckell also has difficulty with timing. The events of the story take several days, but that is not very evident in the way the story is organized, and some details seem to contradict this as well. When Pepper has the people make makeshift spears, the construction of the chapters lead me to believe that the entire populace of a large city was armed within the space of a few hours. Obviously, this is impossible, and Buckell catches himself later, but at the time it is confusing. Also, when Pepper is forced into a mechanized suit that can only run for four hours, it isn’t clear whether that is four hours a day, or four hours total. After Pepper uses it several times in several days, it become clear it is the former, not the latter, but by leaving that minor detail out, Buckell left me confused and forced me to turn back the pages to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t, it just isn’t clear.

Buckell also should have made clearer to new readers the relationship between the Raga, The League of Human Affairs, and the Satraps. A new reader might be confused by these entities if he or she hasn’t read Ragamuffin. This makes the book fail to quite live up to Buckell’s stand-alone intent. It can still be enjoyed as such, but some new readers may have questions by the end of the tale, a problem which a true stand-alone novel should seek to avoid assiduously.

But these problems are minor, and most readers may not even notice. Although you may not have read any Tobias Buckell before, you can easily read Sly Mongoose before those he has already published. I recommend that you read some Tobias Buckell and soon. Sly Mongoose isn’t a bad place to start either, though I would recommend Crystal Rain first.

Any reader who enjoys space adventure with science based action will find Sly Mongoose to their taste. The story is not given over to much introspection, nor is it some sort of commentary on our times. Although those are part of it, it is first and foremost a space adventure, and one I highly recommend you read and give pride of place on your bookshelf.

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