Scott Marlowe
Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Interesting Words: Crystal Rain

View this book on Amazon.com One of the things I often do as I'm reading a novel or short story is keep track of words whose definitions I do not know or that I find interesting. Either way, these interesting words are ones I feel might be of use in my own writing. That, and it's good to expand one's vocabulary every once in a while.

Read my review of Crystal Rain. 

cleat: a fastener (usually with two projecting horns) around which a rope can be secured

cordon: cord or ribbon worn as an insignia of honor or rank

gimbal: a pivoted ring mounted at right angles to one or two others to ensure that something such as a ship's compass always remains horizontal

sextant: a measuring instrument for measuring the angular distance between celestial objects

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Book Review: Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell is the first novel of Buckell's set in his Caribbean-style sci-fi world. Buckell himself is a native of that region of the world, though he now resides in landlocked Ohio. You can follow the author on his blog. Buckell contributed a Pepper story to the Seeds of Change anthology, of which I received an advanced reader copy and reviewed. I also previously reviewed Sly Mongoose, which is the third novel (and I believe last as the publisher decided to not move forward with anymore novels set in this world) in Buckell's Caribbean sci-fi series.

Events in Crystal Rain are such that Caribbean natives come to a far-off world to colonize and are then trapped there when the wormhole that they arrived through is closed. It's either that or face annihilation from an alien enemy. The mechanism which closes the wormhole also renders inert most technology, so the world is set back into a traditional Caribbean way of life, though there are elements of steampunk in the form of steam-powered watercraft and airships.

Much of the story told in Crystal Rain revolves around John deBrun, a man who arrived on the planet under mysterious circumstances and who doesn't remember anything prior to his arrival. That was some twenty years ago. As the novel opens, another stranger to this world arrives, a cyborg named Pepper. Genetically modified to fight the ancient alien enemy which forced them to close the wormhole those hundreds of years ago, Pepper has come looking for John. John soon learns that Pepper holds the key to his past, and that their destinies are woven together whether John deBrun likes it or not.

Crystal Rain is an enjoyable read, but I couldn't help but feel it was missing something. The character of John deBrun is hard to pin down; he's interesting, but ultimately feels flat. The same goes for many of the other characters with the exception of Pepper who was the most interesting of all. Sadly, the novel is really about John, though Pepper gets his fair share of narration.

The title of the novel seemed a bit misplaced to me. It refers to snow, which the people of the novel experience only when an expedition ventures far north. Perhaps there is some deeper meaning here which I missed.

Overall, a good read, but I'm not overly compelled to go read Ragamuffin, the next in the series. I did, however, enjoy reading Sly Mongoose, which is a story that centers around Pepper.

Book Review: Seeds of Change

Back in early June, John Joseph Adams sent out a request for advanced readers for his Seeds of Change anthology. Of course, I took him up on it.

Adams is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but he's also been on a tear of late editing anthologies. There's The Living Dead, Wastelands, and, now, Seeds of Change.

While Adams gave plenty of advanced notice of the imminent release of the anthology, I fell behind with some other reading and wasn't able to start it until after it had already been released. Fortunately, Seeds of Change is a fast-paced, easy read (though I have to admit I did not read every story through, see below), and so this review comes only shortly after the official release. You can purchase Seeds of Change in hardcover or Kindle formats.

Now, on to my review…

I'm going to start with an introduction pulled from the Seeds of Change web site to give you a taste of what this anthology is all about:

Imagine the moment when the present ends, and the future begins–when the world we knew is no more and a brave new world is thrust upon us. Gathering stories by nine of today’s most incisive minds, Seeds of Change confronts the pivotal issues facing our society today: racism, global warming, peak oil, technological advancement, and political revolution.

A heady claim, to be sure, but Seeds of Change delivered, for me, seven out of nine times.

That calls for an explanation: There are nine stories in total; two of them didn't do it for me, and I had to stop reading. But of the seven stories I did finish, I found each of them both entertaining and thought-provoking. That's a rare combination, IMO. Often an author will go too far into the literary realm, which is all well and fine when one is looking for that sort of thing. But these days I'll take entertaining over literary nine times out of ten. It was a pleasant surprise that Seeds of Change provided both, and probably why I found it such an easy read.

Of the seven stories I completed, the most entertaining were those by Jay Lake, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and Ted Kosmatka. Tobias Buckell was up there as well, but I found his Pepper story contribution a bit of a letdown. Perhaps I'd gotten too used to the character's zombie butt-kicking ways from Sly Mongoose that to see him thoughtful and almost introspective threw me. On the other hand, this anthology is about change, so seeing things in a different light may be what it's all about.

Seeds of Change scores a ten on quality of writing. Regardless of what I might have thought about a story's theme or characters, the authors each come through with a wholly engaging style. That goes for the two stories I didn't finish as well.

For the record, those two were "A Dance Called Armageddon", by Ken MacLeod, and "Artists Aren't Stupid", by Jeremiah Tolbert. There was nothing inherently wrong with either story. The oration simply wasn't doing it for me. At my age (I'm 38), that's enough for me to give it a pass.

But that fact takes nothing away from the anthology. If you're looking for a healthy dose of thought-provoking literature leavened by a hefty shot of entertainment to put an exclamation on these final summer days, I highly recommend Seeds of Change.

Book Review: Sly Mongoose by Tobias Buckell

Tobias Buckell posted a request for advanced readers for his upcoming science fiction novel, Sly Mongoose, and, of course, I took him up on it.

This is my first go-around with Buckell’s work, though I’ve had one of his other novels, Crystal Rain, on my radar for a long time. Sly Mongoose is and isn’t a continuation of the story told in Ragamuffin. While there are clear references to the story that unfolded in that previous book, at no time did I feel as if I was missing something by not having read it first. Needless to say, as I found Sly Mongoose to be a very enjoyable read, I intend to go back and read Ragamuffin. Now, on to the review…

Sly Mongoose is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. The .rtf version I previewed came in at 208 pages, so expect about the same in the hard cover or paperback versions. The book is scheduled for release about August.

Buckell wastes no time throwing us into the story: Pepper, our titular character, is free-falling from orbit through Chilo’s atmosphere with only a heatshield protecting him from the 2,000 degree, friction-induced heat. Pepper is no ordinary person, though. He’s a Mongoose Man, a cyborg-like, elite soldier whose primary duty is the preservation of the human race (kicking ass is his other priority).

Therein lies one of the main complexities of Pepper’s character. He’s extremely resourceful, intelligent, and experienced, having lived hundreds of years thanks to his cyborg implants, but he’s also pragmatic to the extreme, and not above sacrificing innocents if that’s what it takes for him to live to fight another day. If those less equipped to save themselves must be sacrificed, so be it. This dilemma lies at the heart of many conflicts for Pepper; it should go without saying that it also plays a part in the unfolding of events in Sly Mongoose.

In contrast to Pepper’s seemingly unlimited resourcefulness is Timas, a teenage resident of the floating city of Yatapek (which Pepper is falling to in the opening scene) on Chilo. Like Pepper, Timas belongs to an elite group, though not a military one. Timas is a xocoyotzin, a person specially chosen to service a mining machine that prowls Chilo’s surface looking for raw materials. Yatapek is not a wealthy city, and much of their technology has become outdated and fallen into disrepair. The environmental suits the xocoyotzin must wear to survive conditions on the surface are only large enough for younger people to wear, so that as one gets older eventually one becomes too big for the suit. For Timas, serving his city is a privilege and an honor, and so he fights to prolong his ability to serve in that role by ritually expunging himself of any food he eats. It’s a terrible burden to place on one so young; we learn a lot about Timas’s character and courage in those scenes alone.

There is more.

Pepper crash lands in Yatapek, and we soon learn exactly why he was de-orbiting with only a heatshield between him and certain death. You see, he was trying to get away from something, and it’s not long before that something follows him down. Other cities are alerted to the threat. One such city sends an emissary, a girl roughly Timas’s age named Katerina, who possesses an eye that all of her people are able to see through. Both her and Timas have pre-conceived notions of the other, notions that change as they gradually bond with one another. There is adventure, and action, and harrowing encounters… Like I noted above, no spoilers, but let’s just say that Pepper, Timas, and Katerina find the entire world of Chilo at risk and are thrust into the role of saviors.

Buckell draws from his Caribbean upbringing, so imagining a mech-warrior-like soldier with dreadlocks or distinctly futuristic, island-like cultures is not far from reality. I found this injection of originality refreshing, though I have to admit to some reluctance to embrace it at first if only because it’s not what I’m used to. I went with it, though, and Buckell makes it work. The author’s style is fast-paced: chapters are generally short and he wastes nearly zero time pontificating or throwing “info dumps” at the reader. His characters are engaging as well. I perhaps liked Pepper the best, but Timas is the true underdog here given his situation. I genuinely wanted to see him both fulfill his duty and save himself at the same time.

The only character I did not become engaged with was Katerina, who has sacrificed much of her individuality to serve as a speaker for her collected people. Perhaps it is that aspect of her make-up which has stolen part of her humanity and therefore disengages the reader from her. In any case, I think her role was greatly overshadowed by Pepper and Timas to the point of irrelevance at times. But that in itself takes nothing from the enjoyment of the story.

As an aside, I also received an advanced copy of Seeds of Change and guess who just happens to have contributed a story to that compilation but Tobias Buckell himself? The story features Buckell’s principal character Pepper, so I’m eager to jump in.

ARC: Sly Mongoose

sly-mongoose-1

Thanks to Tobias Buckell for providing me an advanced copy of his upcoming science fiction novel, Sly Mongoose. I hope to have finished reading the novel within a month (yeah, I'm slow) at which time I'll make a follow-up post to include my review.

I'll admit I've never read anything by Buckell (pronounced 'Buck Ell' not 'Buckle'; from the author's web site), but I've seen his other works around town, namely Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin.

As for Sly Mongoose, this excerpt I pilfered from the author's site had me hooked from the start:

Welcome to Chilo, a planet with corrosive rain, crushing pressure, and deadly heat. Fortunately, fourteen-year-old Timas lives in one of the domed cities that float 100,000 feet above the surface, circling near the edge of a monstrous perpetual storm.

Oh, the possibilities stemming from that are virtually unlimited, so I'm eager to see where Buckell takes it.

One last comment: My intentions are not completely unselfish here. The current novel I'm slaving away on also features a roughly fourteen year old protagonist, so I'm curious to see what life Buckell breathes into young Timas for purposes of comparison if nothing else.