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Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf Crystal Rain hinted at the promise of Tobias Buckell’s inchoate talents, Ragamuffin is the delivery. Setting his debut novel on an isolated colony world whose culture was influenced by Aztec and Mesoamerican cultures was inspired and original. And while Ragamuffin may seem slightly less original due to its reliance on more familiar space opera tropes, it also serves to expand upon the trilogy’s universe and bring a great deal more dimension to what was already an imaginatively conceived future. That it’s pure action front to back knocks its entertainment value off the charts to boot. 

Buckell tackles his sequel the way all writers should: by coming at it from a completely fresh angle. We don’t see any of the familiar characters from Crystal Rain until halfway in. Instead, the entire first half of Ragamuffin shifts the focus to the remainder of human-colonized space, where we learn that humanity is under the yoke of alien rulers calling themselves the Benevolent Satrapy. Because they call themselves benevolent, we immediately know they aren’t. Straggling groups of freedom fighters — chief among them the ragamuffins, the remnants of the Black Starliner Corporation responsible for humanity’s colonization efforts in the first place — resist the Satrapy, which severely limits human technological advancement and patrols the network of wormholes connecting colonized space, cutting off worlds as they see fit.

Nashara is a modified fighter from one of these interdicted worlds who has made her way back into Satrapy space with a secret mission and a secret weapon concealed within her body. After learning that another pro-human organization, the pompously-named League of Human Affairs (Buckell gets in some appropriately snarky digs at the kinds of people who get involved in movements less out of altruism than self-righteousness), intended to set her up as an unwitting martyr, Nashara makes a break down the wormhole network with only the ragtag surviving crew of a battered ragamuffin vessel as her allies. I got a huge kick out of the map of this network in the front of the book, which looks exactly like a subway map. It’s simple but does its job. I have a better idea of where everything is in Buckell’s universe than I do in, say, Cherryh’s Alliance.

Buckell knows his way around a wicked cool action scene, and here he tops the airship chase in Crystal Rain with an eyebrow-raising zero-G pursuit in a doomed space habitat where the resourceful use of high-powered weaponry as a means of propulsion (hey, kids, physics!) ramps up the white-knuckle factor into the red. The story eventually returns us to Nanagada, or New Anagada, where the fragile peace following the war in the previous book is threatened by the return of the alien Teotl, who have a few problems of their own. 

It’s true that the breakneck pace of Ragamuffin doesn’t allow for too many moments of calm and introspection. But that doesn’t mean Buckell skimps on character. While John deBrun is back, he’s kind of sidelined here to make way for Nashara and Pepper, the nano-modified assassin from book one who never met an army he couldn’t dispatch while getting a pedicure. The two of them share a bond that, when revealed, isn’t so surprising but is still completely plausible and satisfying, given Nashara’s development through the story. And while I would have liked for the book to sit still every once in a while so I could catch my breath — there is such a thing as too much action — I still admired the way Buckell managed to work in such thematic issues as the psychological consequences of revenge, and the loss of self that comes with compromising one’s integrity in the hopes of easy resolutions to complex problems. One human character who chooses to collaborate with the Teotl in order to save lives and reduce bloodshed does so in full awareness that his actions will brand him a traitor in the eyes of those he’s hoped to save, and that his choice is probably misguided enough to justify that hate to boot.

Without being obnoxious about a sequel setup, Buckell does leave some key narrative matters unresolved — such as the reason the Teotl say they’ve returned — for future installments. Ragamuffin shores up Tobias Buckell’s stature as a leading purveyor of the new space opera. It’s adrenalizing fun all the way through. And I didn’t even mind this time that Pepper still has a goofy name. 

Followed by Sly Mongoose.