Ragamuffin, Tobias S. Buckell

Tor, 2007, 316 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1507-6

Isn’t it great when authors write second novels that exceed the expectations set by their first ones?

It’s even better when it happens to genuinely nice guys. Even in a field where I wish every new author the best of luck, I’m in the grandstands cheering for Tobias Buckell: I think that he brings something new and vital to the SF genre and I genuinely enjoy reading his writing. His debut, Crystal Rain, was a promising start, highly enjoyable but consciously restricted in scope. As a planetary adventure on a far-away planet with intriguing aliens and plenty of derring-do, it was a success and promised even better things.

Now Ragamuffin blows open the doors unlocked by Crystal Rain. Suddenly, we’re not stuck on the backwater planet of Nanagada; We’re in space, deep inside the Satrapy Hegemony where humans eke out a subsistence living in the cracks of an empire that doesn’t particularly care for them. From planetary adventure, Buckell moves on to space opera, setting up a fascinating universe filled with powerful alien forces, plucky resistance heroes and allies to both sides.

Our anchor during the first half of the novel is a powerful woman named Nashara, a specially-trained operative with dangerous secrets and even more powerful capabilities. On the run after killing a member of the ruling class, she’s looking to make contact with the rebel forces. There are complications along the way, including space battles, a trip through a decaying space colony and a multiplication of Nasharas.

As a reading experience, that first half is everything one could ask from a contemporary space opera: It’s fast-paced, it presents intriguing characters, it features interesting scenes and ideas, and it’s packed with action. The set-piece of that first half is pictured on the cover: A thrilling chase/shootout sequence in the microgravity environment of a spinning space colony that’s as much fun as SF ever gets. It helps that Nashara is one of the most interesting characters to pop up in recent SF.

Things change slightly past the half-point mark, as Buckell interrupts the action to rejoin the protagonists of Crystal Rain on their home planet, and brings both sets of characters together. This is where the narrative stumbles, as the flow of Nashara’s story is completely halted and readers are asked to stretch their memories back to Crystal Rain in order to catch up with the story. It takes a while for the characters to get up to speed, and I wonder if there wasn’t a better way of blending both plot strands together.

But thing soon accelerate again as various factions are brought together and set against each other. By the end of the book, the stage is set for even bigger adventures in the Satrapy universe, along with Nashara and the terrific Pepper, who’s back from Crystal Rain. This is very much a transition volume, and while readers of the first novel will be pleased by the way things a getting bigger and more important, those who want to read a complete story may want to wait until the third novel comes out to dive in.

Buckell’s prose in this second book seems even cleaner than the first book; it helps that things move along more quickly, and that the scope in inherently bigger. Thematically, Buckell deals well with themes of oppression and alienation; I particularly appreciated the way humans are portrayed as being very minor player in a known universe otherwise controlled by far more powerful players. This is the kind of things that helps break SF out of its current doldrums.

All told, it amounts to a second novel that’s better than an already quite enjoyable first novel.

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