Tobias Buckell, Crystal Rain (Tor, 2006)
Tobias Buckell, Ragamuffin (Tor, 2007)

Science fiction fans are in luck. Not only has Tobias Buckell's much-anticipated second novel Ragamuffin just become available, but his debut novel, Crystal Rain, has just been released in paperback. Now is your chance to read these novels back to back with no interruption, perhaps not as they were necessarily intended to be read, but as I read them. I can't imagine having enjoyed them more any other way.

Crystal Rain is set on the planet New Anagada, or Nanagada, as it is termed by the locals. Nanagadans, descendants of Caribbean settlers from distant Earth, have long been at war with the Azteca from over the mountains. Only constant vigilance, and the mountains themselves (aptly named the "Wicked Highs"), prevent the Nanagadans from being brutalized by the cruel Aztecans, who worship their gods with countless human sacrifices. Each dawn is met with the still-warm heart of a sacrificial victim, held aloft by an Azteca warrior-priest in thanks to the sun and to the Aztecans' blood-thirsty gods, the Teotl.

Only an incredibly long-lived few, the old-fathers, know the Teotl for what they truly are; not gods, but alien creatures so physically powerful, so technologically superior, they easily rule the descendants from Earth; humans whose own ancestors destroyed their technology in an effort to stave off annihilation, leaving future generations to struggle in relatively primitive conditions on a half-terraformed planet, its wormholes closed to all travel in or out. Also left behind are several humans in space, trapped in excruciatingly small life-pods. Thanks to technologically advanced biological alterations, these few are able to physically survive the centuries in cramped isolation, though not necessarily the mental strain of their confinement. Crystal Rain protagonist John deBrun and the enigmatic Pepper are the only two long-orbiting survivors, though deBrun has had to divest himself of his own memories to prevent total madness.

This book is a ride, and it packs a wallop. The world building is lush -- lush jungles, lush dialects, lush religions, lush personalities -- and the aesthetics refreshing for science fiction. The Caribbean patois used by the Nanagadans lends an unusual richness to the dialogue, and deeper believability to characters which might otherwise have felt more ordinary. The first portions of Crystal Rain can be read free of charge on Buckell's site, but don't stop there: I had a difficult time immersing myself in this universe at the beginning. I attribute this to no fault of the book other than its overwhelmingly rich detail. Once the world sank in and permeated my mind, I couldn't put the book down.  Like all good books, it only got better as it progressed, all the way to the end.

Ragamuffin begins in a totally different place, in more ways than one. It opens with the deadly assassin Nashara, who has just completed a dangerous mission and is working to get herself off-planet (far from Nanagada and its non-functioning wormholes). Unfortunately for her, her employers' motives are suspect, their loyalty to her questionable. They had not actually expected her to survive the job, so Nashara's continued existence and resourcefulness prove inconvenient to them, to say the least. But only she knows the secret of her own nigh-invulnerable flesh and combat-mechanized mind and body. Only she knows she has the potential to destroy all human civilization for good.

The first portions of Ragamuffin are also available free on Tobias Buckell's site. Do read the available chapters, but again, don't stop there! I found myself experiencing the same sluggish (on my part) mental involvement in the first quarter of the book, only to race through the last quarter, eagerly turning pages, completely committed to the storyline. It might be that the action (and there is a lot of action in these novels) is more compelling after one has an opportunity to become more emotionally invested in the characters.

Ragamuffin grows most exciting when the first book's settings and characters come back into play. In turn, John deBrun and Pepper and the world established in Crystal Rain are made that much richer by the introduction of Nashara and her satellite characters, and Buckell handles the altered circumstances of the first book's heroes and villains beautifully. There's a reason these novels are being touted as this season's "sci-fi must-haves." Don't miss out.

[Camille Alexa]