Crystal Rain is Carribean SF with airships and bloodshed and steamboats and nanotech and plenty of action. Our hero, John deBrun, is a man who lost his memory 27 years ago. He's now married and raising a son, living a relatively content life, when the Azteca cross through the mountains and invade. The resulting war is bloody and desperate, and the only hope is for John to lead an expedition to find a long lost artifact called the Ma Wi Jung ... but the search for the Ma Wi Jung also brings John face to face with his forgotten past.
The book has a lot going for it. I know some readers have complained about the Carribean dialect, but I enjoyed it. Seriously, why do we expect everyone in the future to talk like midwesterners? Buckell's dialogue took a few pages to get used to, but there's an almost musical quality to the words which brings the book alive in a way many stories never achieve.
The latter part of the book was more engaging than the beginning for me. That's not to say that the first part is in any way bad. John's struggle to escape the Azteca and his drive to fight back against them are very powerful. But later on, Buckell's worldbuilding skills become more apparent, and the book sucks you in even deeper. We learn about the powers behind the Azteca. We discover the history of Nanagada, and learn about this world's role in a much larger conflict. Most importantly, we learn what John deBrun really is, and why he lost his memory. These were the things that had me sacrificing sleep in order to keep reading. The whole world -- the whole universe -- is well-planned, and it's a blast to explore. I would have liked to see a bit more of the alien races, though I can understand why they stayed off-page for most of the book. Hopefully we'll see more of them in the sequel.
This isn't necessarily a pleasant book. Buckell's Azteca are bloody, and even the heroes are often vicious. (Pepper is a bad-ass, but not someone I'd want anywhere near me ... unless he was between me and something scarier.)
While John is a good protagonist, I actually found the Azteca double-agent Oaxyctl to be the most interesting character. The Azteca generally come across as cruel, bloodthirsty savages. While Oaxyctl gives them a human face, I wish Buckell had been able to show us a bit more from the Azteca point of view. In the end, Oaxyctl becomes a much more admirable character even than some of our heroes. He's in a more difficult situation, and has to make harder choices. I never wanted him to win, but I definitely came to sympathize with him, and admired the strength he showed at the end of the book.
If memory serves, Crystal Rain was a Nebula finalist when it came out. The sequel, Ragamuffin, is on this year's final Nebula ballot. Buckell is clearly doing something right. If you're curious, he's posted the first 1/3 of the novel for free at his web site.