Crystal Rain, Tobias Buckell’s debut novel, is the first book in a series of stand-alone space operas set in the same universe (if it has a series name, I can’t find it on Buckell’s site or Amazon). It is followed by Ragamuffin, which was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2007, and Sly Mongoose, which just came out a few days ago. These books seem to receive a lot of praise; however, bad writing, lack of strong characterization, and some slow pacing despite a lot of action kept me from enjoying this book.
Twenty-seven years ago, John deBrun was found in the water by the citizens of the land of Nanagada. With no memory of his life to that point, John begins a new life with a wife with whom he eventually has a son. Haunted by nightmares he believes are from his former existence, he paints these scenes from his dreams hoping it will allow him to recall his past but never with any success. Other than this disturbance, he lives a quiet life until his family is separated when the Azteca unexpectedly make it past the mountains and attack, looking for more victims to sacrifice.
Oaxyctl, an Azteca, is charged by one of his gods to find the man who will travel north carrying codes to free the Ma Wi Jung. They tell him his name is John deBrun, that he is very important, and Oaxyctl must not let him die before attaining his secret. If he succeeds in his mission, he will be rewarded but if he fails the consequences will be deadly. Meanwhile, a very dangerous man is also seeking John deBrun and seems prepared to stop at nothing to find him.
Crystal Rain is an adventure story which takes place in a Caribbean setting in space. At the beginning I was expecting some interesting storytelling with the “gods” of the planet, the loss of technology and the tale of the arrival of the old-fathers many years ago. Most of this is developed somewhat later in the story, but I ended up feeling like Buckell could have done more with this and did not end up satisfied with the amount of information revealed in the story, particularly about the gods (although this may be expanded upon further in the next two books).
The pacing was terribly uneven as it bounced back and forth between too much talk about politics and the city from the prime minister’s viewpoint and the occasional explosive scene containing lots of action and violence. There was also one storyline involving what happened to John’s son while he was in hiding that did not add anything to the story and was not particularly compelling. Most of the story did not interest me and seemed like a huge set up for the action-filled conclusion of the book.
To add some authenticity, many of the characters spoke using Caribbean dialect. Although I understand the reason for this, it still bothered me since deciphering it took me out of the flow of the story at times. This meant that “we” was used instead of “us,” “you” instead of “your,” and “go” instead of “going,” as in this sentence from the book, “He go kill we dead” (page 58). There is a lot of this depending on which characters are in the spotlight.
Perhaps the patois would not have impacted my reading experience as much if the writing in this book was not terrible to begin with. There were lots of short, choppy sentences and sometimes it seemed as if a thirteen word limit on sentences had been imposed, such as in this fight scene (page 150):
Oaxyctl walked forward. They didn’t spread apart. When Oaxyctl stepped between them, they threw their shoulders forward to stop him. The young man on the left punched Oaxyctl in the belly. Oaxyctl crumpled. Several lightning-quick kicks and punches disoriented him.
Buckell may have been using this style for effect in the action scene above, but I also noticed it in many other places where there would be no reason to write this way and found it distractingly bad. Also, many sentences began with the same word such as in this paragraph from page 105:
John unstrapped himself from the chair. He wrapped a foot around the rail and leaned out. He looked down, saw the world far below his knees, and looked right back up at the distant and safe horizon. He grabbed the rope net swaying from the gasbag with the outstretched fingers of his right hand.
The next 3 paragraphs mainly consist of sentences beginning with the word “He” or “John.”
The characters seemed rather flat and underdeveloped with just a few characteristics to set them apart. John had lost his memory, did not age, and had a hook for a hand (I found myself wondering if this had been added just so the scene on the cover could take place). Dihana was the prime minister who wanted to live up to her father. There was also a token mysterious badass character by the name of Pepper. Oaxyctl was the only personality who had some depth with his conflicted feelings about his god-given task of retrieving the codes from John.
The story in Crystal Rain had some promise with its backstory about the how the old fathers came to the planet. However, it was poorly written and contained too much slow plotting that did not seem to go anywhere until the end of the novel.
First 1/3 of the novel
Addendum from John: I haven’t read this yet, but the review could have stopped after ‘amnesia with nightmares about his past’ and I would be guaranteed to never touch the book. Can we please come up with some new backstories?