Tobias Buckellís Crystal Rain comes with a fair amount of buzz, not the least of which are the accompanying quotes from notable writers such as Nalo Hopkinson, Mike Resnick, and Robert J. Sawyer. In addition, Buckell has been crafting short stories for a few years now, with appearances in various anthologies and the pre-eminent genre magazines. What Iíve read of his short fiction, Iíve enjoyed, so I was looking forward to seeing how he could flex his creative muscles in the longer form of the novel. If Crystal Rain is any indication, Iíll be reading more novels by Tobias.
For a first novel, any novel really, Buckell hits a lot of the right notes in this one. The protagonist, John deBrun, has lived for many years; however, he can only remember the last 27 years. He knows he appeared on the shores of Nanagada one day, but everything prior to that is a blur. In the intervening years between washing up without his memory and the start of Crystal Rain, he has married and brought up a child with his wife. We follow John as struggles with this mystery, while, at the same time, he attempts to make his way towards a mythical artifact his adoptive people think will help stave off the threat of the attacking Azteca. John is pretty complex, but he is only one of a number of memorable characters in the book. The character of Pepper, a man of Johnís past who remembers more of Johnís past than John does, sets an ominous tone whenever his presence is "on screen." Pepperís motivations add a level of mystery to the already thick haze of Johnís past memories.
There are elements of both Fantasy and Science Fiction in this one, with wormhole technology as the method of travel the people employed to reach (and become stranded) on Nanagada. One of the fantasy elements flavoring the whole novel is the idea of humans living alongside gods. What I liked was how Buckell brought these elements, as well as a number of intriguing elements together in a pepperpot of a delectable, enjoyable story. Other tasty elements in this stew include the almost Dying Earth feel in the way that technology is treated and was phased out, as well as the sense of humanityís readjustment to civilized society. Johnís internal identity struggles parallel those of the external struggles of Johnís people staving off the Azteca invasion, which I also thought worked very well.
The world comes vividly alive through the action of the plot, as well as the eyes of the character. The alien Earth-like planet seems a veritable jungle of conflict, with gods living amongst men, warring tribes and villages comprising the majority of human habitation. The invading Azteca, a tribe of men resembling Aztecs of our world, provides perhaps a hint of a deeper connection to our world. The vessels floating in the sky seem a combination of blimp and boat, which adds another fantastical layer. This, coupled with the sea vessel passages, give the story the feel of what Robin Hobb did with her Liveship Traders saga, which is a good thing. The exoticness of the locales in both books are similar, if not in specifics, then in the contrast to much of the other science fiction and fantasy on the shelves.
Crystal Rain stands apart from the run-of-the mill fantasy and science fiction, while also providing that sense of wonder SF all too often neglects. In Crystal Rain, Buckell has hinted at world and human society that may seem far removed from where we are today, yet the world and these people are ripe for further exploration. Buckell is a deft, assured storyteller who will, hopefully, continue to publish novel-length fiction with the same eye for intricate setting and rounded characterization heís exhibited here in his debut novel. Whether these novels should take place in the world of this novel or entirely new worlds, I would be happy to let Mr. Buckell be the tour guide.