As a kid, I remember one of my favourite stories was the Rudyard Kipling tale called “Riki-tiki-tavi”, about a brave and resourceful mongoose. From what I could tell from reading the story as a child, a mongoose was a weasel or rodent-like mammal not that much bigger than a martin or a fisher. What makes them so unique is their absolute fearlessness when it comes to facing down the mighty King Cobras of India. The mongoose takes advantage of its speed and agility to elude the deadly bites of its opponent, until it can manoeuver itself into position to grab the snake from behind and snap its neck.
Ever since then I’ve had nothing but admiration for those little mammals and their bravery. Finding out later that they not only will take on Cobras above ground, but will follow them down into their tunnels as well, only made them that much more impressive. This was one tough and brave little animal willing to go up against creatures many times bigger than it and from whom the smallest of bites would mean death. Even today any reference to a mongoose, no matter how oblique, attracts my attention.
So when I was offered the chance to read and review an advance copy of Tobias Buckell’s forthcoming release Sly Mongoose, I jumped at the opportunity. I was even only slightly disappointed when I found out that it wasn’t about a sentient race of mongooses, but that the Mongoose of the title referred to the elite fighting force of a Rastafarian government in space.
At some point in the future, Earth had made contact with an alien race called the Sataraps and proceeded to sell millions of their people into slavery in exchange for technology. Eventually the descendants of those slaves revolted and were able to defeat their overlords and form their own societies. Instead of unifying under the banner of their species, a good many developed their own societies while others created a type of imperial federation known as The League of Human Affairs.
That the League’s main interest seemed to be forcing the independent human governments to join them resulted in the world of New Anegada creating its elite force of warriors, The Mongoose, to help protect the other free worlds from the League. When Pepper, one of the founders of the elite fighting unit, literally falls out of orbit and through the protective shield keeping the city of Yatapek on the planet Chilo safe from the boiling hot acid of the world’s atmosphere, it’s not because he was trying to set a new record for free fall.
It was a desperate move that cost him literally an arm and a leg, so that he could carry a warning of a deadly invasion force making its way towards Chilo, from which no human would be safe. One by one the passengers and crew of the ship he had been traveling on had succumbed to the infection that turned them into mindless extensions of a collective consciousness known as The Swarm. Instead of killing those who stood in their way, The Swarm was more interested in making everybody one of them by spreading the infection through the simple expedient of biting their potential victims.
At first it’s thought that Chilo was only a random target, but Pepper finds out information about the city of Yatapek that makes him question that assumption. The city depends on what little precious metal it can excavate from beneath the surface of the planet for its survival. Centuries ago when it was founded, the original colonists had purchased protective suits that allowed people to walk on the surface for short periods of time. Over the years the suits had worn down and the city couldn’t afford the technology to repair them – let alone upgrade them. The only people able to fit in the suits anymore are teenagers willing to starve themselves to maintain a small enough stature to fit in them.
On the day Pepper fell through the atmosphere, Timas was walking the surface in an attempt to gauge the extent of the damage that the debris from Pepper’s forced entry caused the drilling apparatus. While out there he swears he saw other life forms moving across the surface. While nobody else believes him, when he tells Pepper, the Mongoose Man thinks he sees a reason for the invasion. What if there are survivors of the former overlords somehow living on the planet’s surface and the League has created this “infection” as a means to eliminate them?
With Sly Mongoose, Tobias Buckell has taken your standard space action adventure story and given it a little extra bite with the addition of a zombie army seemingly intent on replicating itself until it swallows all of humanity. While the story line is pretty much as old as the genre (a mysterious alien threat), Buckell’s ability to create interesting characters keeps the book from descending to the level of a cliche. While at first glance Pepper appears to be nothing more than a standard action hero, he’s gradually revealed to be a far more complicated and interesting character than your average killing machine.
Of course what made him all the more appealing to me was that he shares many of those attributes that I had so admired in Riki-Tiki-Tavi all those years ago; not only is he brave and a good fighter, he’s also smart. Many a good strong fighter has gone down in battle because they don’t have the ability to think three steps ahead of their adversary. That’s not a problem for Pepper, for like any good mongoose knows, his survival depends on being able to anticipate where the cobra’s fangs are going to strike before they do – so he can be somewhere else.
Yet it’s actually Timas, the young man who serves his city by walking on the surface of Chilo in a dangerously old environmental suit, who is the most interesting character in the book. He’s spent his whole life being conditioned to believe that no sacrifice is too big to make in order to preserve both his city and the status allocated his family because of the work he does. They are given preferred housing, access to better food, and whatever luxuries are available to the city because Timas risks his life on a weekly basis.
Racked with guilt every time he eats at the thought that he might gain weight and no longer be able to fit in the environmental suit, he has become a bulimic. After every meal he forces himself to throw up in a desperate attempt to stay small. Timas’ struggle to overcome the emotional blackmail of his parents and his community is as interesting a battle as the one that rages between The Swarm and Chilo’s defenders. Its the added dimension that elevates Sly Mongoose out of the ordinary and into the worth reading category.
With Sly Mongoose, Tobias Buckell has written more than just another two dimensional space adventure. While it contains plenty of action, and enough plot twists to satisfy anyone’s need for excitement, it’s his ability to create convincing and interesting characters that makes this book really worthwhile.
Sly Mongoose will be published this August by Tor Books, and is available for pre-order at most on line retailers.