Sly Mongoose is the third novel of Tobias Buckell. It is part of the same future history as its predecessors Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, but it is a self-contained story that can be read on its own.
You can also read an interview with Tobias Buckell.
It has been decades since humanity rose up and overthrew their oppressors, the alien Satraps and their client races. Now, the 48 linked worlds of the former Benevolent Satrapy are fought over by humans, once the very bottom of society. The largest of these factions is the League of Human Affairs; once revolutionaries who led the way against the Satraps, they have themselves become the oppressors as they seek to unite humanity under their banner by force and subjugate or destroy the alien races who once served the oppressive Satrapy. Their chief opponents are an alliance of free peoples centered on the formerly lost human colony world of New Anegada. Caught in the middle is the human world of Chilo, a Venus-like planet in the neutral buffer zone between the League and Nanagada. Its people live in huge floating cities, held up by Chilo’s ultra-dense lower atmosphere.
The story begins with fourteen year-old Timas, an inhabitant of one of Chilo’s poorest cities, Yatapek. He is one of the xocoyotzin, boys who periodically descend to the burning surface of Chilo to maintain the automated mining machines that sustain the city’s economy- the impoverished city is stuck with pressure suits too small for Yatapekan adults. The vital role he plays allows his family to share in the life of the city’s upper class- until Timas grows too big, or dies in the blazing Hell he descends into over and over to keep the machines running.
His life is thrown into chaos when a strange visitor from space crashes into Yatapek after making a desperate escape from a dying ship. He is pursued by the Aeolians, Yatapek’s more prosperous neighbors, who say that he murdered an entire starship crew. The stranger himself, a man named Pepper, has an even more horrifying story to tell of the crew’s fate- a fate that may overtake all of Chilo.
Sly Mongoose is the best of Buckell’s novels to date. Buckell’s greatest strengths- fast-paced action and intriguing settings- are on full display. Timas is an interesting protagonist and a well-done portrayal of someone being overwhelmed by the demands placed on him.
The novel is in some ways a return to the style of Buckell’s debut Crystal Rain; the story focuses tightly on a single world and its inhabitants, rather than continuing the wide-scale scope of Ragamuffin. This works out well, since Chilo has more than enough points of interest.
The people of Yatapek are Azteca, who have previously appeared in Buckell’s universe only as antagonists. They have abandoned the rituals of human sacrifice forced on their ancestors by the alien Teotl and sought to make a fresh start. Buckell does a great job portraying their society- poverty desperate enough to drive them to send their children into the hazardous inferno of the surface, leaders terrified that the lower classes will revert to the bloodthirsty ways of their ancestors, the fear and tension of the families of the xocoyotzin who have been given a taste of a better life among the upper classes but know it could end at any time.
While the story is confined to Chilo, the reader does still learn a number of interesting things about the wider fictional universe, some hinted at in previous books and others completely new. The shared setting of Buckell’s three novels has become increasingly intriguing with each book.
The menace to Chilo is called the Swarm- a malignant group consciousness that spreads by infection and turns humans into mindless thralls. They are a very interesting take on the idea of the zombie- they have elements reminiscent of both the modern American movie zombie and the older Vodou concept, built on a science fictional rather than supernatural base. Buckell does a great job of taking something that had become a bit of a cliché and breathing new life into it.
Buckell’s talent for action scenes is well-demonstrated here, with everything from aerial warfare between dirigibles in Chilo’s skies to desperate mass battle with the relentless hordes of the Swarm. Pepper was a powerful presence in Buckell’s first two novels, but here he really comes into his own, and some of his later scenes are among the most thrilling I’ve read in a while. The action is fast and intense, and visceral without being off-puttingly gruesome.
Sly Mongoose is an outstanding book, and one I’d recommend to any science fiction fan. If you enjoyed Buckell’s previous books, or like stories with a well-realized setting and a lot of action, you won’t be disappointed.