I’ve been having a terrible run of luck with fiction the last week, none of them worth talking about, though I was tempted to take a picture of the stack of books I could barely start that went back to the library. To some degree, I managed to break that streak with some kickass Azteca-Caribbean action in Sly Mongoose, by Tobias Buckell, but sadly, I couldn’t finish it.
First the good stuff: Zombies. Cloud cities hanging over a hot planet. Pepper kicking ass no matter how many limbs he has left. We meet Pepper (a centuries-old, chopped and channelled mongoose man from New Anegada) clinging to an improvised ablative device as he falls into the skies of the planet Chilo, telling the local Mission Control they better get ready to catch. Awesome.
Then we meet Timas, descended from the Azteca from New Anegada, who works as a xocoyotzin, descending through blazing heat and deadly pressure to the surface to carry out maintenance work on Chilo’s crumbling technology. Chilo is interesting, Timas is promising in an earnest youth way, and I loved the spice of Nahuatl in the text–but the narrative was repetitive, and I couldn’t stand the dialogue.
It seems like just about every page Timas broods about how his ancestors used to worship aliens as gods back on the homeworld, alternating with brooding about how the technology is crumbling on his current world. And there’s a statement on every other page that even talking about aliens is heresy. Okay, I get it.
Then there’s the expository dialogue, where they keep making statements that I wish had been left for the reader to figure out. It’s like reading one of my own drafts where I’m working out what the characters are thinking and feeling, without pushing on to the next step of figuring out how they would show it most naturally. For example, this exchange with Heutzin, an ex-xocoyotzin, is the sort of thing that kept throwing me out of the story:
“Heutzin?” Timas prompted.
“Yes. It isn’t exactly a safe thing to do, going down there. You’ll lose many more friends before you give up your groundsuit.” A distant groan from a large shifting deck plate filled the air around them.
“I wouldn’t do it if the family didn’t depend on me,” Timas said. “It feels like I’m holding them all up on my shoulders.”
“And it doesn’t feel fair, does it?”
Timas shook his head. “No.”
200 pages later, I gave up. Maybe if you’ve read the first two books, you’ll be so eager to push on to the action (and yes there is a lot of action) you’ll just see this as typical space opera. And you really need to read them to understand who Pepper is, what New Anegada is like, what threat the Satrap pose, and what ancestral crimes hang over the heads of the Azteca on Chilo. If you haven’t, don’t worry. Everyone understands zombies, and that’s where the action’s at.
I’d rather listen to the mento song “Sly Mongoose.”