Here is my review with spoilers. The non-spoiled version is that I enjoyed it.
Crystal Rain is an interesting science-fiction novel written with fantasy conceits. The novel starts off very much like a typical fantasy novel introducing a world inhabited mostly by people of Caribbean descent in a peninsula nation called Nanagada. John LeBrun is an amnesiac who washed ashore a couple of decades previously and is quite different than the people he lives with. He is white, speaks differently, and doesn’t seem to age. Despite this, he is accepted and marries a local woman and has a teenaged son.
Across a mostly impassable mountain range are the Azteca. The Azteca are an Aztec-derived culture that oddly follows the historical Aztecs to be more than coincidence. The action begins when the Azteca complete a tunnel through the mountain range and invade in the name of their gods. At first, John doesn’t want to get involved, he just wants to live his life. When he is separated from his family by the invasion, he starts taking action.
Here is where the twist comes in. The gods of the Azteca are real, but they are aliens. They have created the Azteca as a way to enslave the human race. The humans on this world are colonists. Some of the first colonists, called “Old Fathers” were very powerful and had the “nana” to keep them young. The Nanagada have alien allies called “the Loa,” but they are temperamental and mostly stay hidden. One thing I really liked is that Buckell uses advanced technology in the story, but as far as the colonists are concerned it is magic.
Once the Azteca invasion is in full force, John leads a quest to find an ancient weapon left by the Old Fathers to stop the invasion. Typically, this sort of quest would be dull and repetitive and the main character is simply the Chosen One. Buckell dodges this bullet by providing reasons that John needs to take this quest and is the only one that complete it based on previous actions of the character and the character’s history. These motivations very much inform the character and explain his actions in the beginning of the book.
I found the novel a good read; however, it is not without problems. The Caribbean descendants of the planet speak in a Caribbean doggerel. Doggerel speech can work well when used sparingly, for example Yoda from the Star Wars movies. On the other hand, it can be used very poorly as witnessed by the horror that was Jar Jar Binks. The Caribbean characters in the book come off somewhere in between. It is my understanding that Buckell has first hand experience with Caribbean cultures and I have no doubt that the dialog is accurate, but it was difficult to read at times.
That said, I enjoyed reading Crystal Rain. How could I not enjoy a novel that ends with one of the characters saying “I am the man your gods will have nightmares about for the next fifty years.”