Paul Stotts's Reviews > Sly Mongoose

Sly Mongoose by Tobias S. Buckell
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May 12, 11

Read in August, 2008

After an innovative and entertaining debut with “Crystal Rain”, author Tobias Buckell followed that up with an even better sophomore effort in “Ragamuffin”. Both novels are essentially stand-alone stories that share the same universe, the Forty-Eight worlds, and some of the same characters. Both also strongly hinted at great things to come from Buckell in the future. Well, the future is here my friend, as Buckell easily solidifies his claim as a hot new writer to watch. His absolutely incredible third novel “Sly Mongoose”, which once again takes place in the Forty-Eight worlds universe, takes the series not only to another stratosphere, but also earns a spot as one of the best books of the year.

Chocked full of übergeek goodness like pirates, zombies, and really big guns, “Sly Mongoose” is a sci-fi nerd’s Mecca. It’s like a George Romero zombie movie bred with a space opera, producing an incredibly unique and twisted lovechild. But the best thing about this hybrid baby is that it flat out rocks. Buckell shows a real skill of taking disparate and unique elements and masterfully weaving them into an entertaining story. The areas where Buckell has improved the most though are in his worldbuilding and character development. In “Crystal Rain”, his character development was much more basic, and felt emotionally shallow, while his worldbuilding left many of his more interesting story ideas criminally underexplored. The Forty-Eight worlds was a remarkable setting, and it deserved a more in-depth treatment and historical overview. This issue was clearly addressed by “Ragamuffin”, which gave a more detailed picture of the universe, as well as being a huge jump up in the quality of characterization. “Sly Mongoose” represents an even greater leap from “Ragamuffin” as Buckell finally pulls everything seamlessly together to deliver an incredibly rich and fulfilling story.

For those familiar with Buckell’s previous novels, the character of Pepper needs no introduction. For those not acquainted with the character, just imagine a multi-gun-toting bad-ass with dreadlocks whose cat-quick deadliness and ultra-violent nature is legendary. Since his introduction in “Crystal Rain”, Pepper has been Buckell’s best character; a mysterious anti-hero type who drops more bodies than words. To my great delight, Pepper enjoys an even greater spotlight in “Sly Mongoose” than in the previous novels. Here he’s less an auxiliary character and more of the main focus. And due to events early in the novel, his aura of invincibility is somewhat lessened.

As the novel begins, Pepper finds himself in an interesting situation. It seems he dove out of an orbiting spacecraft into the Chilo atmosphere right before the ship crashed into Chilo’s sun. While not showing a whole lot of good sense (but I guess it beats the alternative of crashing into the sun), he wasn’t left with much choice. A mysterious infection had transformed the crew and passengers of the ship he was traveling on into zombies. When the zombies, referenced in the novel eventually as the Swarm, weren’t nibbling on the uninfected and turning them into the living dead, they were loading into the ship’s escape shuttles and blasting off for Chilo in hopes of continuing the infection there. Left with no shuttles remaining and the ship plunging into Chilo’s sun, Pepper is forced to attempt an impromptu spacedive (and without a parachute to boot). So strapped to a small heat-shield, Pepper plummets his way through the Chilo atmosphere before crashing into the city of Yatapek.

Like all the cities on the planet Chilo (which has an environment similar to Venus), the domed Yatapek floats high up in the atmosphere and away from the crushing pressure and intense heat of the Chilo surface. Yatapek also borders an immense perpetual storm. Pepper more than proves his toughness by not only surviving the plunge from space but also the subsequent crash landing. However, he does sustain some significant injuries in the process which he is forced to deal with over the course of the novel. Having survived his incredible descent, Pepper attempts to warn the Yatapak elders of the potential danger to Chilo from the zombie invasion. He realizes the Swarm could overtake the planet in a matter of hours, and prepares them for this reality.

He finds help among the Yatapek residents from a young boy named Timas, who is a xocoyotzin. The xocoyotzin are a group of young boys who continuously risk their lives working on the surface of Chilo. The xocoyotzin are responsible for performing maintenance on a huge drill that provides Yatapek with raw materials essential to the city’s continued survival. Within Yatapek society, the xocoyotzin are treated with the utmost reverence, their dangerous work securing a privileged life for themselves and their families. Being xocoyotzin though doesn’t come without sacrifices. Timas must starve himself in order to maintain his slight figure so that he will continue to be able to fit into his spacesuit (Yatapek is too poor to afford new bulkier spacesuits). But it’s something that Timas saw one day on the surface of Chilo that has Pepper intrigued. Could what Timas saw provide the answer to the mystery surrounding the zombie invasion?

It’s the multitude of really interesting little details that make “Sly Mongoose” such a vastly enjoyable book. For example, the Chilo-based Aeolians employ a very interesting form of democracy. The Aeolians use a technologically-enhanced representative who broadcasts their experiences to the rest of the Aeolian populace. The Aeolians then vote in real-time on what action they wish the representative to take on their behalf. Or another example would be the overwhelming pressures faces by the xocoyotzin. These young boys must continuously face death in order to ensure prosperity for their family, and they must use whatever means possible in order to maintain their figures. These details are what ultimately provide the richness and innovativeness to the story that makes “Sly Mongoose” such a terrific pleasure to read.

The most significant aspect to the novel is that Buckell’s characterizations have vastly improved since “Crystal Rain” and “Ragamuffin”. His maturation as a writer can be seen in full force here, as his characters have never had this level of complexity before. I found myself caring deeply about Timas and his struggles. This was the first time I’d found myself so emotionally engaged with one of Buckell’s characters. While Pepper is a great larger-than-life character, he isn’t the type of character that one easily identifies or connects with. He is more superhuman than human. (C’mon, I mean he survives a fall through a planet’s atmosphere.) He is however more flawed and complex than he was in the previous novels. For the most part though, Pepper is appealing for his anti-hero persona. The area of new growth for Buckell is in his ability to create characters like Timas, and his mother (as well as the Aeolian avatar Katerina) that finally bring a sense of real humanity to his work.

Last Word:
At its heart, “Sly Mongoose” is an action-packed sci-fi extravaganza filled with remarkably cool battles that includes a final conflict between the Swarm and the residents of Yatapek that’s absolutely killer. A plethora of unexpected twists and turns in the tale will likely keep the reader on the very edge of their seat until the end. For those who have not read “Crystal Rain” or “Ragamuffin”, “Sly Mongoose” works beautifully as not only a wonderful stand-alone novel, but also as an entry point in the series. Honestly, I’d recommend starting here, and catching up with the other novels afterwards. Simply put, “Sly Mongoose” is one of the best reads of 2008. Buckell packs the novel so full of cool and innovative ideas and characters that it’s not just enjoyable, but absolutely unforgettable.
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