Posted on November 20, 2009 by Monica Valentinelli
Available at Amazon.com
CRYSTAL RAIN is the debut novel by author Tobias S. Buckell about John deBrun, a fisherman who had lost his memories, who becomes embroiled in a conflict to save Nanaganda against the bloodthirsty Azteca.
I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked this up, because the title and the cover art totally threw me. Billed as science fiction, I was surprised to see a swashbuckling guy with a hook holding a gun on an airship. Then I started reading CRYSTAL RAIN, and I was immediately hooked. In my mind, CRYSTAL RAIN accomplishes what I like the most about the science fiction genre. CRYSTAL RAIN explores the consequences of advancements in technology on both the environment and the culture, but it does it in a way that’s integrated with the story, the world and the characters. Unlike other stories with similar themes, CRYSTAL RAIN isn’t preachy or condescending, it is gritty and organic. Survival, perseverance and trust are also integral to the plot, but these themes make sense for what the characters are trying to accomplish. Whether Buckell intended to or not, there are very deep and insightful characterizations here that explore several “what if” scenarios with a very believable and straightforward approach.
Before I go any further, please note that the discovery of the world is very much a part of the story; if you want to be surprised by CRYSTAL RAIN, I’d encourage you to stop reading my review.
If you remember the TV series FARSCAPE, you might recall how inventive and strange the series got as they traveled from world to world. CRYSTAL RAIN reminds me very much of that TV show, because it focuses not on the pretty special effects, but on the relationships between the characters and their cultures. When the story opens, we aren’t sure “where” or “when” the story is taking place, because the first part focuses heavily on John deBrun and his family. We get to know him and the cultures of Nanaganda, and how threatening the Azteca are to these people. This people-centric approach allows the subtleties of the world to emerge slowly and carefully, so when “bad things happen” we care about these characters and what happens to them.
Ironically enough, the “bad things” that do happen aren’t technologically-based, they are primarily culturally-based. The Azteca, a reinvention of the Aztec culture, worship “gods” or in this case “aliens.” These aliens mostly reside behind-the-curtain, and while they do make an occasional appearance, they don’t take over the story. The Azteca believe their gods to be sacred, and have integrated them into their culture and religion. Part of the reason why the Azteca are so “scary” is because they perform human sacrifices.
After the invasion of John’s village and his kidnapping, the story’s pace picks up as we learn that John is the only one that can travel to the frozen North to uncover a mysterious artifact known as the Ma Wi Jung. Several characters focus on John’s ability to reach this piece of technology, one of which is a character named “Pepper,” who is definitely more than he appears.
Through a series of twists and turns, we begin to understand that the world of Nanaganda has been embroiled in desperation for many years, and its place in the universe is much bigger than we’ve first anticipated. As if they’ve been tuned to John’s memories, we learn more as John does, which helps us digest this larger-than-life plot without becoming overwhelmed by it.
CRYSTAL RAIN is a three-dimensional story where the “bad guys” aren’t as clear cut as you might think. Even though we (as a reader) know more than the main character John deBrun does, it’s the type of tale that makes more sense the more we learn about this world, its people and its place in the universe. It is dark, in the sense that there’s a war going on and people do die, but there are a lot of heroics, too. With such a strong focus on the character relationships, I believe that this book would be perfect for readers that prefer less flash and more meat in their science fiction. There is a fair amount of hard science fiction toward the end, but as I mentioned earlier, learning “what” that technology is ends up being part of the surprise.
As a first novel, I feel that CRYSTAL RAIN is an exciting, fresh look into the dark science fiction genre.
Review by Monica Valentinelli