'Sly Mongoose' is the third novel of Tobias S. Buckell, originally published back in 2008 in hardcover but finally making it into trade paperback seven years later. It's set in the same universe as his first two books, 'Crystal Rain' and 'Ragamuffin,' but it doesn't rely on them and, even with a recurring character, is considered a standalone volume. Having read neither of those earlier books, I certainly had no trouble keeping up with this one.
Authors tend to have interesting biographies because they try to be something else first and inevitably flit from weird job to weird job until they finally land back where they should always have been, as writers. Buckell's background is quirkier than usual but it isn't tied to prior employment. He was born in the Caribbean on the island of Grenada and was raised on a boat. That really has to give a writer a different perspective on a lot of things from his colleagues and that definitely shows here, even though there's also clear influence in the juveniles of Robert Heinlein.
We spend almost the entire book on the planet of Chilo or, rather, above it because it's a seriously dangerous place, 'blasted by corrosive rain, crushing pressure and deadly heat,' as the back cover blurb would have it. Given that living on the surface isn't remotely viable, the population resides in floating cities high in the sky. These cities, rather like James Blish's spacefaring equivalents, function somewhat like independent states; there's commerce between them, but there are clear winners and losers in the wealth rankings.
Blish took Earth cities out to space through use of antigravity and anti-aging drugs, and Buckell may have done something similar but before the beginning of this book. There must have been a diaspora from Earth at some point but also another from New Anegada, where the Azteca fought the Ragamuffins and lost, prompting a fresh exodus to Chilo. These Aztec and Caribbean peoples provide us with glorious clashes of culture. The Azteca live their lives believably both like the remnants of a once great race long after their day and futuristic space colonists struggling against a harsh environment.
The real hero of our story is Timas, a fourteen-year-old Aztec who lives on the floating city of Yatapek and works far below on the unwelcoming surface of Chilo. He's known as a xocoyotzin, a small and thin child who maintains that size through purging, as if he was a bulimic. Only such children can mine the surface for valuable minerals because only such children can fit into the groundsuits that Yatapek has. It's a poor city without the means to make new ones or the funds to buy bigger ones. He's already a hero to his people, but as the story progresses, he finds that there's a lot more that he can do for them.
The other key character, whom most writers would have made the lead, is Pepper, an elite Ragamuffin warrior from New Anegada, who literally crashes into Yatapek during reentry into Chilo's atmosphere; his genetic enhancements ensuring his survival, even at the cost of a few limbs. He was travelling past the planet when his ship's crew and passengers fell prey to a mysterious virus. Initially seeming to be a zombie apocalypse, it's really something more sinister: the expansion of an alien hive mind called the Swarm.
With the Swarm headed for Chilo, and Pepper the only survivor of its successful takeover of his ship, the Ragamuffin is the only man in between the floating cities and an alien threat that will surely destroy them. His first problem, however, is convincing the Aeolians, who occupy richer, more high-tech floating cities, that he's their friend and not a dangerous lunatic who murdered an entire ship's crew.
Unfortunately for him, the Aeolians are an odd people, who are something of an experiment in participatory democracy, with all its citizens perpetually connected and ready to vote on anything at a moment's notice. They send Katerina Volga as their delegate to Yatapek to demand Pepper is turned over to them and to witness the act through one of her eyes, through which her entire people see remotely. Talk about lack of privacy, but how else can they vote with appropriate knowledge?
So this book mixes a number of approaches in one story. It's a story about class, of a struggling culture, an underdog race who find themselves the last hope for their entire planet. It's an exploration of technology and the social impact of gaps between haves and have-nots. It's also a space opera, a rollicking fight between a beleaguered planet and an attacking alien force that has the added benefit that their dead promptly rise again and whose strength really does increase with numbers. Most of all, it's the coming-of-age story of Timas, who has to fight not only his own battles, but those of his floating city and, in the end, of his entire planet.
I found 'Sly Mongoose,' a name taken from a Jamaican folk song, a somewhat deceptive novel. It feels light, but like the Heinlein juveniles which also often felt light, it carries considerable depth and the more we acknowledge that, the better it becomes.
After putting down the finished book, I wondered if it would read differently on a second run-through. Initially, I was caught up in the cultural detail, the class struggles and the awkwardness that occupies the places where wildly different technologies meet. I enjoyed it as an interplay between burdened characters: the young boy already burdened by responsibility (and about to acquire a whole lot more) and the young girl burdened not only by duty but by a complete removal of privacy. Their conversations are the book in microcosm: overtly simplistic, even childlike, but full of depth and meaning.
Yet, if I reread the book, knowing what's to come as the story progresses, will the cultural and technological aspects lessen and the power of the coming-of-age saga leap to the fore? That's how I'm remembering it already, one reason why Heinlein's many juveniles sit in the front of my mind refusing to be ignored as a comparison. Those books tended to feature young protagonists, often isolated from their communities or even worlds, forced to endure danger or hardship for a higher cause. What's more, many of those Heinlein characters came from wild ethnic backgrounds, though I don't remember any of Aztec heritage. That's a new one on me in science fiction and I'm very happy to see it.
I'm not burning to devour the earlier books in this Xenowealth series the way I am prior volumes to other books I've reviewed lately, but the idea of getting hold of them is going to sit there between my eyes nagging at me until I do so. It's worth mentioning, perhaps, that 'Ragamuffin,' the second and previous book in the series, was nominated for a Nebula award, so others are also clearly appreciating the refreshingly different worlds that Tobias Buckell is exploring. ~~ Hal C F Astell