Take a captain of a beat up old ship that sometimes can barely fly, but he loves it to death. He’s a veteran of a recent war, has no love for the Navy, and seeks freedom and profit, from trading between ports to a bit of light piracy and theft now and again. He has a crew of misfits and rogues that he doesn’t entirely trust. All of them have mysterious pasts, and one or two of them have unexplained abilities beyond mortal ken. The captain and his crew have to band together and really work as a unit when a job they are hired to do, for far too much money to turn down, goes tragically wrong. Now the Navy wants their heads, fellow pirates and malcontents are hunting them for the reward, a bounty hunter pirate from Frey’s past might be one step ahead of him, and trouble is around every corner.
Am I talking about the Joss Whedon property Firefly/Serenity?
Well, yes, but this also describes Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, the first book in a sequence he calls “Tales of the Ketty Jay”. The Ketty Jay is the analogue for Firefly in the scenario I described above, and Darian Frey is the analogue to Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Instead of flying between planets, however, Retribution Falls is set in a fantasy world with magic (although magic is giving way to science and technology), and a cavorite like gas provides for airships and derring do. Guns and swords are the weapons of choice.
And while there are plenty of parallels between Retribution Falls and Firefly, and this is an association that was explicitly encouraged in the press letter (I read an ARC of this book), my friend Scott, while thumbing through my copy, crystalized for me another thought I had about what Retribution Falls reminds me of: Crimson Skies.
Crimson Skies is a book and videogame universe where the United States balkanized into a bunch of rival states in the 1930’s following a devastating flu and a few other political changes. Deterioration of the roads leads to air travel, planes and zeppelins, being the dominant way to get from place to place, with local militias and air forces facing off against numerous pirates and brigands of the airways. While the technology is higher in the Crimson Skies universe than in Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, it has that sort of feel of traveling from place to place on a continent by airship, dodging the law and pirates, and trying to make a perfect score, a main chance. I don’t know if Chris was directly inspired by Crimson Skies, but the parallels immediately struck both my friend and I.
So I’ve made comparisons to Firefly and to Crimson Skies. So let’s dig into Retribution Falls universe and its characters. As I mentioned above, this is a fantasy secondary world with a bunch of dukedoms ruled over by an Archduke. Aerium is a seemingly magical gas with anti-gravity like powers (as opposed to being just helium or hydrogen) that allows for the building and use of airships, ranging from fighters all the way up to cargo ships and even frigates. There are muskets and pistols and swords as the primary hand weapons, but nothing more advanced. There are gas lights and a few electric lights, so, really, we are talking about a Late Victorian era sort of milieu. There isn’t a tremendous amount of heavy passages of worldbuilding, Wooding likes to save his word ammo to drive the plot and action.
The chapters, too, feel like Wooding was channeling Victorian novels, with chapter headings giving “previews” of what is in store. For example:
“Chapter Six: The Ghostmoth—Frey’s Idea of Division—The Ace of Skulls—Harkins Tests his Courage”
Retribution Falls was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2010. I wondered at the time why such a book would be listed along with the likes of China Mieville and Kim Stanley Robinson. And then I sat down to read it.
Retribution Falls is admittedly and unapologetically a throwback, a retro fantasy with technology that takes a bunch of interesting characters, most of them with secrets of their own, and puts them into a swashbuckling, action fueled caper that rarely pauses for breath. It’s a fun novel, and one that Wooding clearly enjoyed doing as a change of pace from his darker-themed YA novels. I got the feeling and sense, reading this that Wooding has been looking for a chance to unleash and write something like this, and has so filled the novel to the brim.
It’s not high literature or art, but Wooding does all of the basics right: The plot makes sense, the characters all get to be fleshed out, their secrets shown, and each of the characters gets a chance to shine, and also face challenges to their world view and their personalities, and grow from them. None of the characters overlap in personality and niche. Even the two outrider pilots, Pinn and Harkins, are distinctively different.
Most importantly, especially given the premise and style, the action scenes are written extremely well, and Wooding doesn’t skimp on giving a heaping dose of entertaining, well written action. The novel starts with a “Russian roulette” style of negotiation that explodes into violence, and Retribution Falls features swordfights, air duels, court intrigue, skullduggery, feats of heroism and more all written to hook the reader and keep them reading.
What didn’t work for me? Well, a map would have been nice, for starters, to get a real sense of where the crew was and where they were going. I got the sense that geography was somewhat fungible and not well defined. The areas the crew visit are well described, from the far north to the titular pirate haven itself. But where things really were in relation to each other was not clear. Also, while every character does get a moment in the sun and we learn their backstory, sadly not all the characters are as equal as others in this regard. Also, a minor character we meet is rather perfunctorily brought in and then discarded in the sequence of events, even given her importance in the backstory of one of the characters. I hope said character makes an appearance in a future Tale of the Ketty Jay.
Still, even given these criticisms, I enjoyed the heck out of this book and I’m definitely looking forward to picking up and reading the next adventure of the Ketty Jay, The Black Lung Captain. You can’t take the crimson skies from me.