A lot of attention in recent years has been focused on "New Space Opera", which is supposedly a modernization of traditional space opera. However, much of it also consists of planetary adventures, and Tobias Buckell’s debut novel Crystal Rain reminded me in several ways of Chandler’s Grimes adventures. The world is a bit more exotic overall, and the lifeforms somewhat more varied, but the major difference is that while Grimes was a pessimistic cynic, he was still basically likeable and reliable. Four of the six focus characters in Crystal Rain have major skeletons in their background, while a fifth makes a major decision in the novel which would totally shock Grimes. But other than that, there is nothing in the novel that A. Bertram Chandler would disapprove of.
The world of Crystal Rain consists of two civilizations separated by huge mountains. Nanagada consists of emigrés from Earth trying to build a world as traditional immigrants generally do. Many of them are from the Caribbean, as is author Buckell, which adds a bit of color to the setting. The other civilization are the Azteca, based on the worst stereotypes of Aztec civilization, complete with human sacrifices and constant warfare. The Azteca have been trying to cross over the mountain for decades, urged on by their priests and their gods, the teotl, who are actually living beings, warlike aliens with incredible super-human powers.
The main plot of Crystal Rain is the story of how the Azteca complete a tunnel under the mountains and invade Nanagada. They are brutal, and immediately begin sacrificing prisoners to their voracious gods. The novel follows five viewpoint characters in the struggle against he Azteca:
- John is an amnesiac father in the village of Brungston, trying to recall his past while protecting his family. What John does not realize is that he possesses a deep secret called Ma Wi Jung which could prove vital in the fight against the Azteca, so two other viewpoint characters are seeking him because of that secret: Pepper, who unbeknownst to John was his ally prior to his amnesia, and who is wants the secret to defeat the Azteca; and Oaxyctl, who is an Azteca spy who has been directly ordered by one of their gods to torture the secret from John. It is a bit of a cheat how many people know John’s past better than he does, but that’s a common tool used by thriller writers which, when done successfully as it is here, actually keeps the reader’s interest as he or she gradually learn along with John the truth about his past;
- Haiden is the leader of a military force in Capitol City, called the Mongoose-Men, who are leading the fight against the Azteca; it is obvious that the Azteca are far superior militarily, so their defense consists primarily of trying to keep the invading horde away from the walls of Capitol City and, if they manage to reach it, prevent them from penetrating its walls;
- Dihana is the prime minister of Capitol City, having recently inherited the position from her late father; her difficulties include the fact that she has not won the support yet of the Councilmen, who are "old fathers," original settlers from hundreds of years ago, or the loas, who are aliens who have been fighting against the teotl since before any of them settled this world. Her greatest strength is her relationship with Haiden who trusts her abilities as she trusts his honesty;
- Jerome is John’s son who is separated from his family after the Azteca overrun Brungstun. His exploits are basically unimportant to the rest of the story, intended to deepen the characterization of both John and Jerome, but not really succeeding in that regard.
Part of the plot of Crystal Rain is a mystery–what secret does John possess? What is his connection to Pepper? What is the relationship between the loa and the teotl? The most interesting part of the novel is when Haiden orders the building of a ship which John captains to the frozen north to find the secret of Ma Wi Jung. The voyage itself is exciting, complete with Azteca spies on board and attack by Azteca ships. Pepper is somewhat too superhuman to be believable, and he serves almost as a deus ex machina whenever the author needs to overcome the Azteca somehow. Fortunately, he does not overuse Pepper, and actually keeps him somewhat in check by his relationship with John.
Buckell does make occasional attempts to flesh out his culture. There is mention of various religions in Nanagada, the most interesting being one revolving around the alien loa, although he does not spend much time delving into it. Capitol City has a Tolteca Town, a ghetto of Azteca who have fled their own harsh civilization. Naturally there are conflicts between the other residents of Capitol City who do not trust the tolteca, a situation which is exasperated after the invasion through the mountain, but Buckell hints at this more than investigates it. If this were a C.J. Cherryh novel, its entire emphasis would likely have been on the loa religion and Tolteca Town, but Buckell is primarily writing an adventure story, and taken on those terms it is a rather successful one. Its climax is mostly satisfying, if a bit easy once John and Pepper find Ma Wi Jung, but it does contain some thoughtfulness rather than a simple wrapping-up-and-wiping-of-the-hands ending.
Buckell’s next novel is entitled Ragamuffin, which is the name of Capitol City’s police force which had an uneasy relationship with the military Mongoose Men. Hopefully he will delve a bit further into Nanagada’s culture in that novel while continuing to tell a rousing adventure story.