Thursday, December 20, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Tobias Buckell's Xenowealth series

Tobias Buckell is the author of the global warming eco-thriller Arctic Rising (read my review) published in 2012. He is more well-known for his debut series of novels, Crystal RainRagamuffin and Sly Mongoose which are collectively known as the Xenowealth series.

Buckell is an unusual sci-fi author in that he was born in the Caribbean (Grenada, the same island where I was born) and even more rare is his decision to include aspects of his West Indian heritage in to his science fiction writing. So, the books of the Xenowealth series have people of color as the central characters. To be specific, his characters are Caribbean members of the black diaspora.  One could describe the series as an alien space opera populated by islanders.

Crystal Rain
The first book in the series, Crystal Rain, introduces the world of Nanagada and the Xenowealth Universe. There are 48 inhabited planets that are connected by various wormholes that are controlled by a governing alien entity called the Benevolent Satrapy. Crystal Rain revolves around the main character John deBrun, his 13-year-old son Jerome and John's friend (crewmate?) Pepper. John is a mysterious figure: he appeared 27 years ago out of the sea, missing one hand but impressive strength and survival skills he has become an integral and valued part of his community which no loger has access to advanced technology (although there are rumors that it existed and worked in the long, almost-forgotten past), and John appears not to have aged a day. Pepper is even more mysterious, since we are introduced to him as literally dropping out of the sky in a metal container and even though he starts by speaking gibberish, once he adjusts his throat somehow he starts speaking the local Nanagadan dialect perfectly.

Ahh, the Nanagadan dialect! Its a large feature of  In order to emphasize or centralize the idea that the characters involved here are of Caribbean origin, Buckell makes the decision to write much of the spoken dialogue to be in Caribbean patois. This can make the dialogue VERY hard to read and understand, although after awhile the reader gets somewhat used to it. My problem with the choice was not that Buckell included West Indian dialect, but his truly bizarre choices in how he punctuated the dialogue which made the text less like the actual spoken Caribbean patois I am familiar with. So in the end Buckell's well-intention decision just ended up being a distraction.

However, even with this flaw, and some plot holes one could fly a steam-powered airship through, Crystal Rain is still an enjoyable read. The main plot involves an invasion of the Nanagadan Capitol City by the neighboring Aztec-based civilization known as the Azteca who worship aliens called the Teotl who insist on live human sacrifice. The Nanagadans have their own aliens as well, who they revere but do not worship, called the Loa, who are in an existential predator-prey relationship with the Teotl. All the aliens (and we suspect, John and Pepper) have been stuck on this planet since the planet's access to the nearest wormhole was destroyed hundreds   of years ago and only John may have the keys to restoring that access somewhere locked in his amnesia-riddled head.

The second book in the Xenowealth series is Ragamuffinbut it is very different from Crystal Rain. For example, the first book takes places in its entirety on one planet (Nanagada) while this putative sequel, although set in the same Universe as Crystal Rain, takes place on multiple planets (and the space between them, on space ships) and features a new character named Nashara. One can enjoyably read the books of the series out of order because they work as stand-alone books as well as entries in a series, which is often a good sign of quality.

More information is provided about the bigger picture in Buckell's well-populated universe of aliens, dread-locked freedom fighters of Caribbean-descent (known as "ragamuffins"), technologically enhanced humans, space habitats and advanced virtual reality. Nashara is a great character, with as much kick-ass potential as the now-legendary Pepper (whom she is apparently remotely related to). We get a useful map of the entire wormhole system which illustrates the structure and extent of the Benevolent Satrapy. We find out exactly where New Anegada (better known as Nanagada in Crystal Rain) is in the grand scheme of things and the oppressed fate of most humans in the Universe as either living in habitats in space, or in reservations on alien-inhabited planets.

Technically, Ragamuffin is a much stronger book than Buckell's debut, and this was recognized by his peers when Ragamuffin was nominated for a Nebula award for Best Novel. For one thing, the use of dialect is minimized  and although it is not a long book, it is jam-packed with action and plot developments. The book is structured into three parts, and it is not until the middle section that Nashara is brought together with John, Pepper and other popular characters from the first book. The third and final section of the book is very exciting as our new characters and old characters work together to a surprising conclusion that most fans of space opera will enjoy.

Sly Mongoose
This is the third (and final?) book in what is known as the Xenowealth series. (I am sort of surprised the series is known by that name since the word "Xenowealth" literally is used once in the 1,000-plus pages of the three books of the series, and that happens in the very last chapter of the very last book!)

The only character that appeared in the first two books, Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, that appears in this book is Pepper (who is really a great character--there's a very good television series that could be based around him). Pepper is near super-human, he has a technologically enhanced body and implants which allow him to be faster, stronger and deadlier than almost anyone around him. He also has a world-view which generally puts his needs and wants before anyone else's, regardless of typical social conventions.

But in the opening scene of Sly Mongooseeven Pepper more than meet his match when the ship he is on is overrun by space zombies! He has to eject from the ship and use a jury-rigged heat shield to crashland on a floating habitat in the atmosphere of Chilo, an uninhabitable planet. Even for the nearly indestructible Pepper falling a couple of miles through a poisonous atmosphere without a parachute into a solid object nearly kills him, and results in the loss of an arm and a leg.
We know that with time (or in an auto-doc), Pepper can recover from almost any kind of injury, given time. However, the plot rushes along at a headlong pace giving Pepper almost no time to catch his breath and heal.

Buckell introduces an entirely new cast of complex characters and unusual society in Sly Mongoose, starting with the main protagonist named Timas, a teenage boy with bulimia who is the sole breadwinner for his family as long as he stays thin enough to fit into the pressure suits which allow him to go down to the deadly surface of planet Chilo. Another interesting aspect of the book is the application of the computer technology from the previous books called "the lamina" to create a society where instantaneous virtual democracy is the rule: everyone gets to vote on every decision and the majority rules.

The plot of Sly Mongoose follows Timas and Pepper as the planet starts to be overwhelmed by the Zombie Army which spreads through the floating cities of Chilo like a virulent infection. Buckell is able to weave in the horrific events occurring on one planet with the ongoing fight for power between various factions of humanity (the mongoose men from Nanagada and the xenophobic forces of the League of Human Affairs) that are grappling for a dominance now that the overlords of the Benevolent Satrapy have been eliminated. The book ends in such a way that the story can be continued, with most (but not all) questions resolved. The third book in the Xenwealth series shows how much Buckell has grown and improved as an author since writing his first book and leads an interest and hope that he will continue adding to the stories in this rich universe he has created in the future.

Title: Crystal Rain.
Author: Tobias S. Buckell.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction.
Published: May 29, 2007.

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


Title:  Ragamuffin.
Author: Tobias S. Buckell.
Length: 352 pages.
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction.
Published: June 3, 2008.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.66/4.0).


:  Sly Mongoose.
Author: Tobias S. Buckell.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction.
Published: March 27, 2012.

OVERALL GRADE: B+/A- (3.5/4.0).


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