Tobias S. Buckell's debut novel, Crystal Rain, combines two familiar premises: a human-colonized world that has lost contact with its mother world and slid to a lower level of technology than it previously possessed, and a main character who has lost his memory. Both situations promise adventure and discovery, in the outer world and in the self; for the most part, however, the story takes better advantage of the first.
John deBrun is the novel's central figure, a man whose past is a mystery to himself. He remembers nothing before the day 27 years ago when he was pulled half-dead from the ocean. He has stayed in the area where he was found, learning to be a fisherman, marrying, and fathering a son, and left only once, for an ill-fated exploratory expedition to the frozen north, where he lost a hand and from which he barely returned alive.
The world that is deBrun's home reflects Earth, in terms of environment and cultures, but humans were not its only settlers: aliens came, too. The Teotl have set themselves up as gods over part of the human population, emulating an Aztec society where the humans worship and sacrifice to them (it isn't clear why an alien race would re-create a long-vanished ancient Earth civilization). The part of the human population that resists domination by the alien Teotl and their warlike human pawns made its society on another part of the continent—one which can be defended at the natural barrier of the Wicked High Mountains. The Azteca are thus prevented from passing into the free land of Nanagada. But soon after the opening of the story, the Nanagadans realize that their defensive strategy has failed when the Azteca launch an overwhelming invasion, defeating and sacrificing men, women, and children as their armies advance toward the Nanagadan stronghold of Capitol City.
The situation grows ever more desperate, and the answers to two mysteries must be found: where are the secrets of the old-fathers (the original settlers) and their lost technology, and what is the secret of John deBrun's identity? The two are intertwined, it seems, for the Teotl are not simply interested in conquest. They also want to find deBrun and torture him for the codes to a mysterious device called the Ma Wi Jung, which is hidden somewhere in the icy north.
Crystal Rain is an adventure story, but it is also a celebration of the language and ways of the Caribbean. The population of the planet on which the story takes place is descended from different cultures of Earth, retaining their ways and distinctive voices, and the people among whom John deBrun finds himself have their cultural legacy from Earth's Caribbean islands. DeBrun's wife, Shanta, telling what is remembered of the colony's past, says:
A long time ago, all we old-father them had work on a cold world with no ocean or palm tree. It was far, far from this world. It was far, far from them own world, call Earth! They had toil for Babylon. In return, Babylon oppress many people. And eventually them Babylon-oppress people ran away looking for a new world, a world far from any other world so they could be left alone.
All sorts of people left. Some pale-looking man like Frenchi and Bridish come. And there was Afrikan. And there was Indian. Carib. Chinee. All of them had join up for the long, long voyage. All color of skin leave. Year and year and year them travel till they had discover this sweet world we live on, just like all the original island on Earth. Here were some cool wind and easy sun. (p. 47)
The voices of Shanta and other characters add a pleasurable layer of verbal adventure and enjoyment to the fighting and the race for the Ma Wi Jung—a necessary relief, since the Azteca are grim, even as villains go. They march steadily toward Capitol City, cutting the hearts out of their living human sacrifices as they come, and the reader needs other things to concentrate on if the experience of reading the story is to be rewarding rather than depressing. If the book has a significant flaw, however, it is John deBrun himself, who is not very interesting until late in the story. But the novel makes up for this shortcoming with some interesting secondary characters and intriguing revelations that promise an adventurous sequel. Crystal Rain contains some hidden places where wonders lie concealed, ready to break out into the light of day when the old-fathers' works are brought back to life.
Donna Royston lives and writes in Fairfax, Virginia. Fantasy, with its grand adventure and themes, is her literary love. She has written a novel, The Unmaking, which is in search of a publisher.