Sunday, May 01, 2011

Book Review - Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Retribution Falls
Chris Wooding
Spectra (Ballantine Books)
June 2009
Trade Paperback
461 pages
ISBN: 978-0575085152
Cover Art by Stephan Martiniere


     With a cast of characters seemingly drawn from the scripts of Firefly, Star Wars, and Pirates of the Caribbean and a story that plots like an action-adventure video game Chris Wooding has created a superb new series and, in the process, has fashioned an enjoyable sub-genre with the publication of Retribution Falls. Wooding has invented an innovative and fresh style of speculative fiction that I like to call “PiratePunk.” (Yes, I said it, arrrggghhh, PiratePunk. So keelhaul me.)This story contains elements of the high seas, steampunk, magic, buccaneers, phantasmagoria, science fiction, mutiny, adventure, mystery, fantasy, political intrigue, and a whole lot of swashbuckling for good measure. (Or would that be Swashpunkling?) The flying machines in this story are not slow-moving dirigibles or hot-air balloons but quick, aggressive machines with as much attitude as altitude. And much like the works cited above the ships are almost as famous as the stories themselves (Serenity, The Millennium Falcon, and The Black Pearl, to mention a few.) So to, Wooding has produced the Ketty Jay, a formidable air ship with its own pair of fighter jets that act, in essence, as characters themselves.

     The crew of the Ketty Jay, a motley band of brigands, pirates and cut-throats at best, include a daemonologist, a tortured man with a price on his head, a nine-foot tall golem, a gung-ho fighter pilot, and a ghost of a woman who may be transforming into something, well, not quite human. (You have to read the story to get the whole picture.) Early in the narrative the crew is forced to discover why they were deceived into destroying an airship that killed more than a dozen passengers, one of whom was the son of a high-ranking nobleman of the kingdom. At least three of the seven (nine including Bess, the golem, and Slag, the cat) crew members are hiding something tragic from their pasts, or so we are led to believe. And the Captain, Darian Frey, is a complex, multifaceted character with a tragic past that, and again I use the above mentioned stories as an example, bends morals like Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly and has similar physical attributes, is extremely likeable like the blockade runner Han Solo from Star Wars, with perhaps the confidence and bravery of Indiana Jones and the irreverence for authority of Captain Jack Sparrow.

     An interesting afterthought occurred to me after I finished reading Retribution Falls which was reinforced when I read the Torque Control review below. This story cries out for treatment by the film media. I know, I know. You’ve probably heard this all before about other stories you’ve read. But this one truly has it all. Gun- and sword fights, magic, Pirate- and Swash-punk settings, golems, fistfights, card games, lost love, torture, politics, murder, dog-fights, religion, betrayal, revenge, and the fast-paced flow of gripping entertainment. Add elements of video game play, anime, and the blockbuster action-adventure which is scattered methodically through-out the narrative and it would parse well as an action film (IMHO). Retribution Falls was a fast, fun read that kept me up a few nights in a row turning pages and I enjoyed it so much that I’ve ordered the next book in the series Black Lung Captain as well as Wooding’s Fade, which I’ve heard is also a pretty good read (but not part of this particular series.)

     All in all, Retribution Falls is one of the most pleasurable books I’ve read so far this year and I recommend it for those who enjoy Firefly, steampunk, adventure, magic, Star Wars, swordplay, fantasy, and gun fights. Did I mention Joss Whedon?

4 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional reading:

Official Author Website

Strange Horizons Review

Fantasy Book Critic Review

Torque Control review

Joe Abercrombie’s Review

Ketty Jay Logbook Very nice addition to the Ketty Jay world is this logbook kept on-line and posted to by Captain Frey. Enjoy!

Excerpt of Retribution Falls

Books in the Series:

Tales of the Ketty Jay
1. Retribution Falls (2009)
2. The Black Lung Captain (July 2010)
3. The Iron Jackal (July 2011)
4. “Unnamed 4th Book” (2012)

The Crew of the Ketty Jay (Wickfield ironclad-class cargo-combat hybrid)

Darian Frey – Captain and owner of Ketty Jay
Gratharian Crake – Daemonologist
Jez – Navigator and a transforming Mane
Silo – Engineer/Mechanic
Malvery – Doctor/Medic
Pinn – Fighter Pilot
Harkins – Fighter Pilot
Bess – Golem and watchdog and…
Slag – Ship’s cat and rat catcher

     Last word: Almost every review of Retribution Falls that I’ve read offers some comparison to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Indeed, I’ve done it here myself and that’s before I ever read another review. Most espouse that the resemblance is not a bad thing (or is a good thing) and it is an apt judgment, but only as it applies to the general plot and concept. Yes, the crew is similar. They skirt the law, have scrupulous associates, take questionable work, have chip-on-shoulder attitudes, and find themselves in trouble more often than not. But really, those are the only similarities. ;-) Being a confirmed Browncoat I happen to love the idea of a book that resembles Firefly and a ship that lives and breathes like Serenity and perhaps that swayed my opinion when rating it, though I’d like to think that my reviews are based on the merit of the story and not because of similar familiar work that has come before. Regardless, Retribution Falls manages to stand well on its own and had Firefly never been born the comparisons to Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean would still be made. You know why? Because good art is recognizable but is often difficult to find and define. But, those who do see it recognize it for what it is, a rarity waiting for its moment to shine. Retribution Falls does just that.


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