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Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell
Cover Artist: Todd Lockwood
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765315076
Date: 12 June 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Most science fiction is written from an American or European perspective with green a far more common skin tone than black. But Tobias Buckell writes science fiction with a Caribbean flavor. His second novel, Ragamuffin, is a much more ambitious effort than his first novel – an impressive attempt at full-blown space opera while retaining much of the voice and feel of his Crystal Rain, to which this is a half sequel.

The first book in this series, Crystal Rain introduces the reader to the planet Nanaganda, whose residents have largely forgotten that it was originally settled from Earth generations ago through a now-destroyed wormhole. The few aliens on the planet are worshiped as gods by the Azteca, who still practice blood sacrifice, and revered as loas by the Caribbean descendants. The Azteca are opposed by the warrior mongoose-men and by the Ragamuffins, a civilian police. Crystal Rain is the story of John deBrun, a former hero, who has lost his memory, consisting of far more years than he would have ever dreamed. In the course of trying to regain his memory and locate a weapon to defeat the Aztecas adventurers, he encounters Pepper, a vicious killer who is one of the first settlers of the planet. Pepper needs deBrun's help to activate the one remaining spaceship, so he can return to Earth. This is a fun adventure in the lost colony mode.

Ragamuffin starts out as the flip side of Crystal Rain, describing events elsewhere in the universe far distant from Nanaganda. In this universe, a maze of worlds connected via wormholes, humans are barely tolerated by the aliens who run the Satrapy. The action begins when book's heroine, Nashara, kills an alien as part of a plot to start a rebellion. Instead of becoming a martyr as her employers had planned, Nashara escapes with the intention of fleeing to New Anegada, which the careful reader will soon discover is the original name for Nanaganda. Nashara has had her body rebuilt as part of the Ragamuffin rebellion against the alien Satrapy and has been implanted with devices that let her seize control of machines. Another main character, a ship's captain named Etsudo, who works for the aliens but uses brain reprogramming of his crew to secretly work for his own interests, is given the assignment of chasing Nashara after she joins forces with a Ragamuffin ship. Eventually, Nashara and a small crew of Ragamuffins flee to the now-open wormhole to New Anegada. At that point, halfway through Ragamuffin, the book shifts planetside to Nanaganda and the characters from the first book. This happens without any transition or explanation about these characters for those who did not read Crystal Rain. It then takes the book 80 pages to get these characters into space to meet up with Nashara and the Ragamuffins for the final battle.

Clearly, this is a very active plot. It's to Buckell's credit that he makes it work as well as it does. Aside from the jarring jump back to Nanaganda's characters, which could have easily been avoided by using alternating chapters, the writing seems somewhat smoother than in the first book. The characterization of Nashara seems deliberately mysterious at first, but she easily is more developed than the other Ragamuffins. Etsudo, is nicely crafted, clearly out for his own interests but with hints of sympathy. John deBrun is again the reluctant hero, who gets his own character-building moment, much as he would rather not. A word must be said about the cover; Tor should be congratulated for making it clear that these characters are Black.

Buckell's ambitions sometimes exceed his grasp. Especially near the end things get a little rushed and the final battle may disappoint some readers. And readers who have not read Crystal Rain will become very confused by the mid-book shift. Still, for a second novel, Ragamuffin is quite impressive. Buckell is not simply repeating himself but expanding on his first book and building his talents. The real fun of Ragamuffin is the complex universe and backstory, developed through hints in the first book and made more concrete in this one. I recommend both books in the series, Ragamuffin somewhat more than the first book, although one should read Crystal Rain first. However, you do not need to take my word for it. The author has put the first third of both novels up on his website, http://www.tobiasbuckell.com, out of the most-likely correct belief that readers will be caught and rush out to buy the book to find out what happens. This website makes it clear that a third book in the series is coming in 2008. I look forward to reading it.

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