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 Yatapek is not a wealthy city, and much of their technology has become outdated and fallen into disrepair.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. Meanwhile, though, check out Sly Mongoose. It’s worth your time.