Thursday, 22 May 2008
‘Sly Mongoose’ - Tobias S. Buckell (Tor Books)
Tobias Buckell’s ‘Ragamuffin’ was one of my surprise finds of last year. Science Fiction isn’t really my thing but what I do love is space opera that’s full of heroes, strange alien races and cool looking spacecraft that can do impossible things when piloted by their roguish captains, ‘Crystal Rain’ and ‘Ragamuffin’ did all of this with an Afro-Caribbean twist that really freshened things up for me. Coming off the back of these two great reads I’d earmarked ‘Sly Mongoose’ as one to look out for in 2008, I’ve just finished it and can safely say that I wasn’t disappointed. (It's got 'space zombies' in it and that's just the start)
‘Sly Mongoose’ is set in the same universe as it’s predecessors but a number of years on. Because of this the book stands on its own fairly well but there are elements where you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve read the other two books as well. The action takes place on the planet Chilo; a world of corrosive rain, crushing pressure and deadly heat (kinda like Venus in our solar system). This isn’t so bad if you live in one of the floating cities, at a safe height, but if you’re one of the young men who has to make a living scavenging on the surface of the planet then things can be very dangerous indeed. Timas is one of these men until the day his routine is shattered by the arrival of a stranger in his city. War is coming and none of the floating cities are safe. The only answer to this problem lies within the perpetual storm that Timas’ city orbits…
Before I say anything else, any book that kicks off with a man strapping himself to a heat shield in order to enter a planet’s atmosphere (he really doesn’t have a lot of choice in the matter) is seriously cool as far as I’m concerned! This opening scene is also a real statement of intent about how far Buckell is prepared to push things for his readers and he proceeds to do this with aplomb. While ‘Ragamuffin’ was action packed, it has nothing on the buzz I got reading this. The second things start to happen; they just don’t stop until the final page, expect some mighty battles and action scenes involving characters who are constantly moving. I loved the final scenes where a floating city was used to ram and invade another floating city but even that was eclipsed by how Tima made his final journey to the surface… Having said that though, I did have an issue with the resolution of a couple of cliff-hangers where pages would be spent in the build up and then everything was explained in one sentence tucked away in a paragraph somewhere… One of these in particular had me going backwards and forwards between pages trying to find the bit I’d obviously missed because, well… Tima was an inch away from death… wasn’t he?
I also found the characterisation to be spot on, especially with Pepper (back and as tough as ever) who bridges the gap between ‘Ragamuffin’ and ‘Sly Mongoose’. It’s very interesting to see the development Pepper goes through (and the decisions he has to make) as he can no longer just shoot his way through a problem, he has to interact with the people around him and be a little bit sly... Pepper’s still a tough character though with a real no-nonsense approach that constantly causes friction and this makes for some fun reading at times.
You wouldn’t have thought that you could do much with an uninhabitable planet but Buckell still manages to suffuse it with life with his signature airships and strange Strandbeest (self replicating craft) amongst other. There’s also a real sense of Chilo’s atmosphere as an entity in its own right (something extremely dangerous to the settlers) and this contributes to a vivid picture of life as a colonist of a dangerous world.
An old enemy rears its head but it’s the promise of new danger on the frontiers that makes things really exciting and has got me looking forward to whatever Tobias writes next. Things are left open ended but I think we’ll be seeing more of Pepper in the future and I for one am really glad. The first chapter has drawn to a close but there is the promise of more good things to come.
Nine out of Ten
PS Reviews of Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin are on the blog if you fancy a look.