Crystal Rain, Tobias Buckell's first book, was one of my favorite debut novels of 2006. It was a compact (around 350 pages), fast-paced novel set in a far future terraformed world settled by descendants of Caribbean islanders. For hundreds of years, Nanagada had been cut off from the rest of the galaxy (alluded to in cryptic terms through the novel), but was in Crystal Rain the source of a renewed effort of the Azteca (Nahuatl-speaking humans under the influence of "gods" called Teotl) to capture the lands of Nanagada that were on the other side of the aptly-named Wicked High Mountains.
Crystal Rain introduced three important characters: John deBrun, his former comrade-in-arms Pepper, and John's son, Jerome, who symbolized the refugee, those who were cut off from the causes of a conflict but were instead most effected and changed by it. It was these characterizations set in an adventure-based setting that made Crystal Rain such an enjoyable read for me last autumn.
Ragamuffin is not a typical sequel. For starters, the playing field is much larger than a single planet. Things hinted at in Crystal Rain are explored here in much more detail. This is a galaxy-wide story, and the cast of characters by necessity had to be broadened.
In the first part, we are introduced to Nashara, a cloned biomechanical human who has been equipped with technologies that enable her to wreak havoc in the galaxy. Crystal Rain's Human/Teotl/Loa conflict has given way to a world in which a single species, the Benevolent Satrapy, has come to dominate the entire galaxy. Humans had managed to win a semblance of freedom only by fleeing to the corners or by forcing the Satrapy to shut down the wormhole system that connected to human-dominated planets such as Earth and New Anegada. But many humans had chosen to become little more than chattel on worlds controlled by races more amenable to the Satrapy, such as the Gahe, while others had been co-opted and had become the human arm of the Satrapy.
Nashara had been hired by the outlawed League of Human Affairs to assassinate a high-ranking Gahe breeder, as the League continues its low-intensity war against the Satrapy. As she carries this out, events start to emerge that link her, the quasi-piratical Ragamuffins, and Crystal Rain's trio into a cross-galactic adventure that is in turns fast-paced and quick-penetrating in its presentation of certain topics very relevant to our world today.
Ragamuffin has more of the trappings of a space opera than does Crystal Rain, in that most of the action for the first half of the novel takes place outside of Nanagada between some of the 48 worlds connected by wormholes. There are space battles, more technological razzle-dazzle (the lamina is a particularly intriguing one), and other elements that one would associate with such a sub-genre. But Ragamuffin is much more than that. It is, in many key ways, as much of a spiritual sequel to Crystal Rain as a chronological one.
War is nasty stuff. People suffer, die, and often live in almost-perpetual fear when under such traumatic conditions. What does this do to the mentalities of people? Can they trust others that are not akin to them in appearance or speech? Can they separate acts of necessity from acts of desire? Is betrayal something of the heart or of the mind (as I'm thinking of one particular episode in Ragamuffin)? And what happens when someone who has been traumatized over the years is forced into a corner and comes to think of a friend as being the worst sort of betrayer?
Buckell presents all of the above in only 316 pages. He does not dwell on these matters (even if many readers might find themselves wishing that he would), but instead drops it like a rock into the pond and lets us ride the ripples. I found myself going from being frustrated about this narrative technique to becoming more aware of possible subtextual interpretations, as I would find myself thinking pages later, "Wait a minute..." as prior events connected into the larger narrative of Ragamuffin. Some might find this apparent lack of explication to be a negative; I found it to be grounds for fertile speculation and consideration of possible future implications. It is nice, sometimes, when an author does not beat the reader over the head with the overarching plotline, leaving she or he to instead read on as he or she might desire, stopping to consider as all the events come crashing together in the mind.
That being said, there are some weaknesses, of course. With such a fast pace (over 70 chapters in these 316 pages), many readers are going to feel as though the action is little more than an outline of what could have been a 600-700 page novel. While I disagree with that notion, it is something that has to be considered when deciding if this is a book worth reading. The characterizations develop swiftly, perhaps too swiftly in places (the apparent mutual admiration/budding courtship between two characters comes to mind in just how rapidly it came together). And for some, Ragamuffin is going to leave them wondering just where the real story is heading.
These are valid concerns that I expect some readers to have. While I personally had little problem (after I adapted, as I mentioned above, to the narrative style) with the pacing or with the writing, I did find the characterizations could have been even better if Buckell had devoted just a teeny-tiny more time to exploring the characters' thoughts. But this is more of a nitpicky thing than of any serious flaw in what I consider to be an improvement over the already very good-to-excellent Crystal Rain.
Summary: Ragamuffin is the second book set in the same universe as Crystal Rain, but with a much larger scope and cast of characters. Fast-paced, this story is broken into three parts, with only the third to unite the plotlines of the previous two. Told in third-person PoV, there is a lot of action mixed in with introspective moments that are the consequences of said action. It is a strong sequel that takes the adventure style of its predecessor and builds upon it. Highly recommended for those who enjoy well-written stories that combine a fast pace with touching moments.
Release Date: June 12 (US), with Amazon UK carrying the American edition (no known UK edition)