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Sly Mongoose by Tobias S. Buckell4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsComing hot on the heels of Ragamuffin’s Nebula nomination and sporting an explosive Todd Lockwood cover that is simply made of awesome, Tobias Buckell’s third (and best to date) novel Sly Mongoose continues his Xenowealth series, expanding the scope of Buckell’s universe far beyond what was indicated in previous volumes. Sly Mongoose can be read on its own, too, for which even more props are due. While Buckell’s loose, off-the-cuff writing style — reminiscent in some ways of early Niven — may not be to all tastes, anyone hankering for a book that is pure front-to-back action is likely to peg this as the space opera of 2008. Again, look at that poster-worthy cover, and you know exactly what you’re getting. Buckell’s flair for relentless action made him a good choice for tackling novelizations of the video game Halo, which he went on to do soon after.

Sly Mongoose opens quite a bit in the future from the events of Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. Exactly how long isn’t made clear, but it could be decades or even a century or so. Readers new to the series can hop aboard completely cold, and not feel lost. 

All the backstory you need, which Buckell covers succinctly, is that the alien Satrapy — who once lorded it over all of the human colonies spread throughout space and connected by an elaborate wormhole network — has been defeated. Now, the human worlds are squabbling amongst themselves, with the Ragamuffins and their ruling Dread Council defending the worlds who wish to remain independent from the power hungry League of Human Affairs. Now this conflict has been taken up a notch, and will culminate on the Venus-like planet Chilo. Here, descendants of the Azteca societies from New Anegada, where the previous books were set, eke out a precarious existence in cloud cities hovering 100,000 feet above the crushing and boiling surface, well above the roiling and corrosive clouds. Select groups of young men brave surface conditions in bulky groundsuits to mine precious minerals. It’s a simply breathtaking setting for a space opera, and one with some scientific validity behind it (check the book’s afterword). It grabs your sense-of-wonder with a vise grip and never lets go once. 

28 Days Later in Space more or less sums up much of the book, though with a far bigger budget and much more at stake for the characters and the reader. The League have unleashed a fearful infection that transforms its victims, not into mere zombies, but something even creepier. Individual infectees become mere drones of some kind of hivemind intelligence calling itself the Swarm. They fight without mercy, thoughtlessly sacrificing any of their own number solely to win at all costs. One by one, the floating cities of Chilo fall to the Swarm, until only poor and decrepit Yatapek remains. Here, with the help of Pepper, the lone-wolf Ragamuffin warrior from the first two books (no, I no longer feel any compulsion to snark on his name), the planet’s last remaining humans will make their last stand.

Buckell’s characters this time are among his warmest and most relatable yet, with much of the book’s action seen through the eyes of young Timas, one of the xocoyotzin who work on the surface. Buckell takes just enough time — not too much, not too little — establishing how Yatapek’s society works. They have a fairly rigid and unforgiving class system. When a partner of Timas’s is killed on the surface (an accidental by-product of Pepper’s rather explosive arrival on the planet), he’s barely cold before his family are thrown out of their home, on the upper levels of the city reserved for the families of xocoyotzin. The ruling body, the pipiltin, are a bunch of petty bureaucrats, many of whom (Timas’s father among them) are motivated as much by self-interest as concern for the city’s welfare.

As the Swarm infection spreads, we meet others among Chilo’s human denizens, such as the Aeolians, who practice the ultimate form of democracy through being something of a hivemind themselves. Their minds are linked technologically, and nearly every action they take is first put up to a vote. They’ve always looked down upon the poorer non-Aeolian cities like Yatapek. But when their own cities are the first to fall to the Swarm, many of them, like Katrina, a young girl about Timas’s age sent to Yatapek as an envoy, must learn to adapt not only as individuals, but to the fact that their self-exalted status was so easily eradicated and that survival depends on putting humanity first. The tension that builds as Yatapek braces for the Swarm invasion is similar, though much stronger, to that in Crystal Rain, where thousands of helpless citizens sought refuge in their capital city as word of other cities falling one by one to invaders reached them. Sly Mongoose ups that ante, and culminates in some of the most phenomenal aerial battles put to paper. 

Sly Mongoose runs mostly on adrenaline, but Buckell saves up a few surprises that hint at future stories. Savvy readers here may already be wondering what the League thought they could possibly have gotten out of spreading a runaway zombie virus among their enemies, and in fact that little curious detail plays a role in some nifty plot turns towards the climax. I’ll stop now, as there’s little more that needs to be said beyond the fact that Tobias Buckell improves by an order of magnitude with each story he tells.

Followed by The Apocalypse Ocean.