By Cheryl Morgan
One of the reasons I like looking for books written by people from different cultural backgrounds is that they tend to produce interesting SF worlds. Tobias S. Buckell lives in Ohio, but he was brought up in the Caribbean, and that background shows in his first novel, Crystal Rain.
The world of Nanagada, or at least that little we see of it, is very much a Caribbean society. Its people are brown skinned, some of them practice Voudun, and many of them spend a lot of time in boats. Yet it is clear that only a few generations ago they spent time in ships of a very different sort. They still have airships, and there is talk of lost science that some in the community wish to recover and others want banned for fear of what it can do.
Naturally the people of Nanagada speak a language that is somewhat different fom American English, but it is not as dense as that of, say, Nalo Hopkinsonís Midnight Robber. Hereís an example:
"What happen?" Then Keisha saw the kitchen table, the bloodied man, and gritted her teeth. "Where he come from?"
Jerome pushed into the kitchen from behind her and started at the man. "He fall from he airship all stuck up in we mango tree."
I canít imagine many readers having difficulty following that, unless they donít want to do so.
But how come there is this injured man on the table? Do we have a plot here? We sure do, for south of the charmingly named Wicked High Mountains are the lands of the Azteca, a degenerate people who worship strange beings called Teotl. These self-styled gods demand regular blood sacrifices, and all-in-all the Azteca would prefer to sacrifice those dark-skinned northerners rather than their own people.
The war gods proclaimed the Azteca to be the fiercest human warriors in all of time. The gods had chosen to bring the Azteca into this world to capture prisoners for sacrifice. Thus their crops remained fertile.
As the book opens, the Azteca are in the process of launching a major invasion. Defense of Nanagada falls to a rather informal government in Capitol City, led by its young Prime Minister, Dihana, who has the job mainly because her father did, and a rag-tag volunteer army of bushmen and hunters led by General Haiden. It all seems pretty hopeless. Haiden, however, knows that more powerful weapons are available. There are machines from the time of the oldfathers. There are even people who are said to have machines in their blood, machines that have allowed them to live for hundreds of years, and which might give them superhuman strength and skill. Unfortunately most of these people are cowards who are more interested in longevity than fighting, and would rather trade their secrets to the Azteca than resist. Haiden and Dihanaís only hope is John deBrun, a man who claims to have lost his memory, but who has not grown noticeably older in all the time they have known him. Unfortunately deBrunís village was one of the first to be overrun by the Azteca.
Of course they have other problems too. The Azteca are not all of one mind. Those who wish to defy their Teotl overlords generally flee across the mountains and are granted asylum. They have their own quarter of Capitol City in which to live, and call them selves Tolteca. Some of them, however, are bound to be spies.
And then there is Oaxyctl (O-ash-k-tul, as he keeps having to explain), a man born under the unlucky sign of the Ocelotl, a man who has been a double agent for so long he can no longer remember which side he is supposed to be working for, except when a Teotl takes a personal interest in his work.
Sometimes doubt surfaced in Oaxyctlís head. He saw the heathen Nanagadans and all their varying religions on this side of the mountains, and the crops grew without any blood sacrifices.
But the Nanagadans would fall soon. The Azteca could not be stopped. The gods would rule everything. So doubt didnít matter. It would be over soon and Oaxyctl could live in a city and put this behind him. Far behind him.
All of this results in a fast-paced pulp-style adventure during which we will find out much more about the history of Nanagada, about the alien Teotl, and about the mythical wormís hole in the sky through which both sides in the ancient conflict are said to have come to the world. There is, of course, a fair amount of revelation left for subsequent volumes, but Crystal Rain is complete enough in itself to provide a very satisfying first novel with a different and refreshing setting. Top marks too to Tor for getting John deBrunís skin color right on the cover.
Setting aside, what I liked best about this book were the characters. DeBrun himself actually has a good reason for his amnesia, and it affects his development. Buckell has done a good job with deBrunís teenage son, Jerome, for whom the war and discovering his father is some sort of old time hero come as a terrible shock. Minister Dihana, trying to do a good job but terrified that the men around her will take any excuse to depose her, is another bright spot. And Oaxyctl is wonderful. I do hope weíll see him again soon.