I have some negative things to say about this book, Tobias Buckell‘s debut novel, Crystal Rain, so I should begin by observing that I enjoyed it, finished it without compulsion, and recommend it, with some reservations.
On with the negativity. The book begins with a prologue (usually a bad sign) in which someone crash-lands on the planet where the novel takes place. He’s not the protagonist and we don’t learn his name (although he has one, as we learn later). The first few chapters continue in this offhanded way, bouncing from viewpoint character to viewpoint character without settling on one long enough to make him/her interesting. This can work if the action in the braided chapters is so compelling that the characters aren’t the focus of interest, but these chapters seem to be deployed largely for exposition purposes: many a shadow looms, but little is done to advance the plot. If one can hang on until chapter six or seven, the plot really begins to roll. But that’s a long time to ask the reader to wait.
The novel has hero problems, also. His name is John deBrun, and he is set up in an interesting way. He washed ashore a generation ago, has not perceptibly aged since then and he has no memory of his life before then. Also, he has a hook for a left hand, a nicely piratical touch. So far, so good. But his character, as displayed in the story, is a rather floppy one. After his home town has been sacked by the invading Azteca, one would think he would go in search of his wife and son. Instead, he goes to Capitol City, for no very obvious reason except that the author wants him there. That’s a pattern which persists through the book: the hero isn’t motivated, he’s moved, like a chess-piece.
On the up side: Buckell invents an interesting and complex social situation, with the Nanagadans separated from the hostile Aztecans by a range of mountains, the Wicked Highs. (Buckell also excels at the naming of names, an important trait for an sf/f writer.) The Nanagadans are a diverse but largely Caribbean people, whose dominant religion is a form of Voudoun with physically present gods: the Loa, a nonhuman species. The invading Azteca, bred by a hostile group of nonhumans called (by the Azteca) Teotl, remain pretty two-dimensional Bad Guy Evil Villain types, with the exception of one named Oaxyctl, whose development through the book is its most sustained and interesting piece of characterization.
The book is virtually science fantasy. There are gods (nonhuman aliens) and magic (oldfather technology), but the setting is low-tech, with pistols and locomotives and lighter-than-air dirigibles: a culture that is groping its way back to technology and industry after a war-caused disaster. Buckell pulls this off to good effect, I thought.
Crystal Rain is something less than the sum of its parts. Hands down my favorite scene in the book was an airship flight by John and Oaxyctl, where they are pursued by an Aztecan airship and have to fight it out in midair, but there are many other good things in it. Still, as a whole, it doesn’t cohere. Buckell, a past master of short fiction, seems to be feeling his way in the longer form. But his talent is undeniable and I expect his novels will only get better as his experience deepens.