Caribbean Steampunk on a Distant World: A Review of Tobias Buckell’s CRYSTAL RAIN

by Guest Contributor Ay-leen the Peacemaker, originally published at Beyond Victoriana

In the wake of the Steampunk Kurfluffle that started with Charles Stross’ complaint against steampunk, Tobias Buckell wrote an interesting response about fantasy’s tendency to romanticize the past and mentioned his own work:

But ultimately, I share Stross’s discomfort, which is why my steampunk plays have often been about adopting the style and nodding to the history. Crystal Rain, what I called a Caribbean steampunk novel, is about Caribbean peoples and the reconstituted Mexica (Azteca in the book) of old with a Victorian level of technology, using the clothing/symbols of steampunk, but making their artificiers black.

Sadly, Crystal Rain, written in 2006, seems to have come out just before all the hotness, as it rarely gets mentioned as a steampunk novel whenever these celebrations happen.

So, now that my curiosity was piqued, I had to go out and get the book to see for myself how he handles steampunk before “the hotness.”

What’s so refreshing about Crystal Rain, besides the setting, is its clear positioning as a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. The book takes place in the multicultural, multiracial country of Nanagada, a land outside of our known history. Little touches hint that Nanagada is a society rebuilding itself from a cataclysmic disaster that occurred centuries ago. A mysterious object called the Spindle drifts in the sky. Barren areas exist that sicken the men who attempt to cross them. The Preservationists work to restore some of the lost technologies from “the old fathers” from long ago under the authority of the new governess Dihana and engineers have just started taking advantage of steam technology. Over the mountain range beyond Nanagada, however, lives the society of Azteca, a fearsome rival. Equipped with air ships and goaded to war by their gods called the Teotl, the Azteca are preparing for invasion with Nanagada in its sights.

Our protagonist, John DeBrun, gets caught in the middle of this looming struggle when the Azteca finally breach the mountain pass safeguarding Nanagada and start their brutal march toward Capital City. John just is an ordinary village fisherman, except for two notable things: he can’t remember anything from his past before he washed upon this country’s shores, and his accent is noticeably different from everyone else’s, who all speak in a Caribbean-esque dialect.

But there is more to John than anyone, even the Azteca, realize. The Teotl are looking for him and have sent the warrior-spy Oaxyctl on a mission to capture him. A mysterious, preternaturally strong fighter named Pepper is also seeks John out. As John evades the Azteca forces and crosses paths with both men, he soon discovers that only one thing can save Nanagada from destruction: a weapon known only as Ma Wi Jung, located in the icy north.

Okay, I’m going to get a bit spoilery here, but what makes Crystal Rain fantastic is that the plot shies away from the mystical and leans heavy on the sci-fi. The Teotl and the rival gods the Loa advise opposing sides of this war, and these aren’t figurative beings, but flesh-and-blood creatures. And one of the reveals is that both groups aren’t gods at all, but enemy alien races that are using human beings as pawns in their own intergalactic battle. In the plethora of steampunk books that populated with werewolves, vampires, and magic (usually based on golems and alchemy), a steampunk book with space aliens—that aren’t Lovecraftian—makes it stand out. Other sci-fi aspects include the incredible powers wielded by John, Pepper, and others which are explained using nanotechnology, the unveiling of the forgotten history of Nanagada, and discovery of what Ma Wi Jung really is.

Buckell is a Caribbean-born author, and you can tell that he writes about the tropical world of Nanagada and its diverse peoples from personal experience. I enjoyed the fact that all of the main characters are non-white, and that the cultural setting is firmly Caribbean and indigenous and not a European-inspired setting populated by people of color. Race relations play out in a fascinating way, especially since the central conflict is between two non-white peoples whose cultural histories are drawn from completely different time periods. In Nanagada, multicultural and multiracial groups live together – the “Afrikan, Carib, Chinee, Indian, Frenchi, and Bridish”—but the Frenchi and Bridish tend to live in their own enclaves, while the non-white majority settled most of Nanagada. The different communities commingle, but the separation is treated more like ethnic neighborhoods rather than one stemming from a past history of slavery and oppression. The main differences were drawn between the Azteca and Nanagadan cultures: one is in a state of perpetual warfare and the other is peaceful and diverse, but stubbornly conservative. While the Azteca base their society around the human sacrifices they perform, the Nanagadans are not spotless either. The Capitol City citizens as just as capable to unleash violence against their Tolteca neighbors, the political refugees who fled Azteca society.

Besides its remarkable setting and worldbuilding, Crystal Rain’s characterization is also deftly handled by Buckell. Governess Dihana is a strong but vulnerable woman who must deal with distrust from council elders and traditional Loa priestesses. Oaxyctl the double agent forms an ambiguous friendship with John but remains fearfully loyal to his god and his society to the bitter end. I thought he was the most complex character of all, and Buckell was able to make Oaxyctl extremely sympathetic without giving him any desire to be converted to the Nanagadans’ side. John himself struggles with self-doubt and disability—he lost one hand during an past voyage to the north—but he doesn’t descend into perpetual angst. The kick-ass and brutal Pepper, however, outshines them all in his single-minded determination to find John and get to Ma Wi Jung, ripping apart (at times, literally), anyone who gets in his way. From his first standout appearance–dashing in his top hat, dreads, and trench coat–Pepper steals every scene he’s in. And it doesn’t hurt that I imagine him looking like Paterson Joseph’s Marquis de Caraban from Neverwhere.

Crystal Rain is full of bloody action and strife, a fast-paced adventure tale that doesn’t sugar-coat violence and its consequences. Like the society that had to be rebuilt from post-apocalyptic destruction, none of the characters in the book have it easy. Major sacrifices are made by John, Dihana, Oaxyctl, Pepper and many others, and there is no sunshine ending. But what the ending does show, however, is the capacity for human beings to survive and fight for their way of life. Overall, Crystal Rain is a thrilling read and truly a unique forerunner to the current steampunk explosion.

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Interested in reading Crystal Rain for yourself? You can read the first third of the book for free online (and the same goes with its sequel Ragamuffin).

Note: I had mistakenly referred to Buckell as a Caribbean-born white author initially, but Jaymee pointed out that he identifies as PoC. Thanks for the clarification!