Monday, June 06, 2011
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is the first book in a series of (mis)adventures of the crew of the Ketty Jay. Combining a ramshackle mix of fantasy, science fiction and steampunk into the swashbuckling tale of an unlikely crew of privateers, Retribution Falls is the sort of adventure story made for so-called summer reading.
The first and most obvious comparison Retribution Falls literally begs you to make is with the Joss Whedon television show, follow-up movie and comics, Firefly, which has endeared a dedicated and cultish following. Firefly is also the story of a mis-matched crew of freebooters, always on the run and in need of cash – the comparison is completed by the aristocrat passenger on the run who joins the crew. As a fan of Firefly, I have to admit that I cringe a bit at the comparison because the strength of Firefly is in Captain Mal and his harsh honor and wit. Captain Frey of the Ketty Jay is no Mal – he’s much less honorable, nowhere near as witty, and all around less likeable, in spite of the charm that Wooding repeated attempts instill in him.
This is not to say that it’s all that it’s unfortunate that comparisons between Retribution Falls and Firefly don’t hold up all that long beyond the surface – the last thing I want is an attempted clone of Firefly. The crew of the Ketty Jay are all flawed and on the run – whether it’s a disgraced doctor, broken pilot, idiot kid, freed slave, or mysterious woman who doesn’t quite seem right, these people feel very real. Wooding takes the time to explore this in a way simply not possible on a television series (at least one as brief as Firefly). Even Captain Frey, who is a thoroughly unlikeable, selfish, and lecherous jerk, has a charm about him that eventually seems to win over his detractors. We’ve all met the type in real life – in Retribution Falls he’s the captain of dirigible and its crew as they struggle for survival at the fringes of society.
The story itself is a fun adventure that introduces us a world of steampunk-ish technology, mixed races and species and a good bit of the supernatural with demons and a sort of vampire. One of Wooding’s most interesting imaginings is the ace-in-the-hole of the Ketty Jay, its golem – a possessed metal creation (robot analog) that truly kicks ass and eventually is the source of the most touching (and skillfully written) parts of the book.
Wooding’s writing style is honestly a bit coarse and not as polished as I’d have expected from someone who’s published 16 books. Or perhaps Wooding feels that when writing about a crew such as the crew of the Ketty Jay, polished writing just doesn’t fit. For me, the humor was a bit off and feels forced – it seemed to get better as the book progressed, which indicates that I either got used to it, began to enjoy it more, or simply ignored it. My guess is it’s a mix of all three. I think the biggest issue I had was that far too much of the book passed before I felt any sort of sympathy for the characters, which can make for tough reading.
Retribution Falls is in the end a fun and creative adventure of a motley crew that’s in way over its head. I enjoyed it, but with a few reservations as I was often left cold and uninterested in the rather unlikeable Captain Frey. The obvious comparison is to Firefly, but don’t get hung up on that – Retribution Falls belongs with the many adventure tales of various genres involving pirates, freebooters, privateers and other crews of people struggling to survive in the dangerous fringes of society. Oh, don’t read the back cover blurb of the book – it contains a reveal that is best left for the text. The adventures of the Ketty Jay, Captain Frey and crew continue with The Black Lung Captain (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and at least two more forthcoming books.