Buckell wastes no time throwing us into the story: Pepper, our titular character, is free-falling from
orbit through Chilo’s atmosphere with only a heatshield protecting him from the
2,000 degree, friction-induced heat. Pepper is no ordinary person, though. He’s
a Mongoose Man, a cyborg-like, elite soldier whose primary duty is the
preservation of the human race (kicking ass is his other priority).
Therein lies one of the main complexities of Pepper’s character. He’s extremely resourceful,
intelligent, and experienced, having lived hundreds of years thanks to his
cyborg implants, but he’s also pragmatic to the extreme, and not above
sacrificing innocents if that’s what it takes for him to live to fight another
day. If those less equipped to save themselves must be sacrificed, so be it.
This dilemma lies at the heart of many conflicts for Pepper; it should go
without saying that it also plays a part in the unfolding of events in Sly
In contrast to Pepper’s seemingly unlimited resourcefulness is Timas, a teenage resident of the
floating city of Yatapek (which Pepper is falling to in the opening scene) on
Chilo. Like Pepper, Timas belongs to an elite group, though not a military one.
Timas is a xocoyotzin, a person specially chosen to service a mining machine
that prowls Chilo’s surface looking for raw materials. Yatapek is not a wealthy
city, and much of their technology has become outdated and fallen into
disrepair. The environmental suits the xocoyotzin must wear to survive
conditions on the surface are only large enough for younger people to wear, so
that as one gets older eventually one becomes too big for the suit. For Timas,
serving his city is a privilege and an honor, and so he fights to prolong his
ability to serve in that role by ritually expunging himself of any food he
eats. It’s a terrible burden to place on one so young; we learn a lot about
Timas’s character and courage in those scenes alone.
There is more.
Pepper crash lands in Yatapek, and we soon learn exactly why he was de-orbiting with only a
heatshield between him and certain death. You see, he was trying to get away
from something, and it’s not long before that something follows him down. Other
cities are alerted to the threat. One such city sends an emissary, a girl
roughly Timas’s age named Katerina, who possesses an eye that all of her people
are able to see through. Both her and Timas have pre-conceived notions of the
other, notions that change as they gradually bond with one another. There is
adventure, and action, and harrowing encounters… Like I noted above, no
spoilers, but let’s just say that Pepper, Timas, and Katerina find the entire
world of Chilo at risk and are thrust into the role of saviors.
Buckell draws from his Caribbean upbringing, so imagining a mech-warrior-like soldier with dreadlocks
or distinctly futuristic, island-like cultures is not far from reality. I found
this injection of originality refreshing, though I have to admit to some
reluctance to embrace it at first if only because it’s not what I’m used to. I
went with it, though, and Buckell makes it work. The author’s style is
fast-paced: chapters are generally short and he wastes nearly zero time
pontificating or throwing “info dumps” at the reader. His characters are
engaging as well. I perhaps liked Pepper the best, but Timas is the true
underdog here given his situation. I genuinely wanted to see him both fulfill
his duty and save himself at the same time.
The only character I did not become engaged with was Katerina, who has sacrificed much of her
individuality to serve as a speaker for her collected people. Perhaps it is
that aspect of her make-up which has stolen part of her humanity and therefore
disengages the reader from her. In any case, I think her role was greatly
overshadowed by Pepper and Timas to the point of irrelevance at times. But that
in itself takes nothing from the enjoyment of the story.
As an aside, I also received an advanced copy of Seeds of Change and guess who just happens to have
contributed a story to that compilation but Tobias Buckell himself. The story
features Buckell’s principal character Pepper, so I’m eager to jump in.