Tobias Buckell, Sly Mongoose (Tor, 2008)

Sly Mongoose, the third of Tobias Buckell's books set in the universe introduced in his debut novel Crystal Rain and continued in Ragamuffin, opens with reappearing antihero Pepper -- that loveable killing machine -- freefalling through the last hundred feet of planetary atmosphere in nothing but a spacesuit strapped to a primitive homemade heatshield. His destination? The surface of the planet Chilo: crushing pressure, clouds of sulfuric acid, 800 degree heat, hurricane-like winds, nothing survivable without the aid of advanced technology for anything resembling human.

Pepper, we know from previous books, would be more properly classified as superhuman. Good for Pepper's chances of survival, though not so good for the city he crashes into on his way down.

Yatapek is one of Chilo's several independent floating city states. The planet's dense atmosphere allows tethered bubble-cities filled with breathable air to exist just above the sulfuric cloud layer. The city's inhabitants are a proud but impoverished people, descendents of the fearsome Aztecan communities from Crystal Rain's New Anegada. Our young protagonist Timas is one of the city's elite, a member of a kind of planetary surface-traveling warrior class. He serves his city and his people by donning an antique suit and riding to Chilo's surface in a massive elevator to make rounds of the equipment Yatapek must keep operational in order to survive. To continue fitting into the antiquated atmosphere suits, he submits to culturally-enforced bulimia: just one of many sacrifices he's willing to make for his parents, his city, and ultimately his entire planet.

I can't believe I haven't mentioned the zombies yet.

That's right; shuffling, mindless, I-wanna-bite-you zombies. If I'm ever cornered in a roomful of zombies, I want Pepper and his ceremonial -- yet deadly -- sword by my side. Not only has Buckell set a space zombie invasion in a floating city tethered to a mysterious sulfuric hurricane planet, but he's brought to life characters we can root for, characters we can believe in: conflicted Timas with his ritualized vomiting; conflicted Pepper, who can survive anything but his own inconvenient drive to help the helpless; conflicted Katerina, the "living avatar" representative from the Aeolian cities ruled collectively by their inhabitants through implant networks across which everyone votes on everything imaginable. Timas's people had always pejoratively called the Aeolians "zombies" for their blank looks and the awkward pauses which occur when they internally connect with their fellow citizens. Until, that is, the real zombies showed up.

Lots of action. Sociological constructs and planet-building almost too large to grasp. Enough humanity and depth to the characters to lend drama and urgency to their plights. All this makes Sly Mongoose another Buckell book nigh-impossible to put down once you've gotten into the action. Highly recommended.

A bit of advice, though: if you haven't yet read the first two, do so. Get all three, put them on your nightstand, and warn your significant other he'll have to feed the cats and walk the dog for a couple days while you immerse yourself in Buckell's universe. All three books could stand on their own; their stories are interconnected, but not dependent upon each other.

But if you read only one, you're missing two-thirds the fun.

[Camille Alexa]