I should point out that this novel was published in 2009 in the UK, which is when the venerable Hobbit reviewed the book initially for SFFWorld. Readers here in the US, like myself, are now lucky enough to have this book on the shelves, and its sequel, hitting shelves in short time.
Sky Pirates of the Future could easily be the tagline for Chris Wooding superbly entertaining SF novel Retribution Falls, if it were written half a century ago. Perhaps Wooding could have thrown that tagline into the subtitle since the sense of wonder, thrill of adventure, and pure fun that is laced throughout the entirety of the novel evokes those pulpy stories which helped to provide a basis for today’s SF.
The story tells of a riffraff crew with Captain Darien Frey at the center. He’s a typical roguish-type who cares more about his ship, The Ketty Jay, more than the people working the ship. At least at the outset. Who are those crew members – Crake, the Daemonist and his golem Bess; Silo, the difficult to understand and little spoken ship’s engineer; the ship’s doctor Malvery; pilots Pinn and Harkins; and the newest member of the crew; Jez the navigator. Frey is looking to make a tremendously big score and against his better instincts, bites onto the bait of what is obviously too good to be true. In tying to escape the authorities and the consequences of their framed actions, Frey eventually attempts to bring his crew to the mythical pirate haven of the titular Retribution Falls.
As the novel proceeds from the point when the too good becomes the crew of the Ketty Jay’s potential downfall, Wooding does an excellent job of revealing the character’s back stories. I thought this a particularly clever method for getting to know and care about the characters as the character’s history and growth read seamlessly along with the action pieces of the novel.
Wooding starts the novel out very strongly, with Frey and Crake in a sticky situation that immediately establishes what I mentioned before – Frey’s #1 concern is the Ketty Jay, even more than the life of a crew member. In some ways, this reminded me of the beginning of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas under Red Skies, except that here in Retribution Falls, we don’t know the characters quite as well. Nevertheless, the scene itself establishes the overall feel for the book and the beginnings of solid character development.
In the aftermath of the “too good” – ship crashing, exploding, and killing the scion of a powerful member of society among many other people – Frey becomes public enemy number one, with factions on both sides of the law out to get him. One of these people hunting Frey is a person from his past with whom he did part on good terms. This raises the emotional punch of the novel more, and brings an added level of tension to the entire narrative. In other words, a plot twist that may seem familiar, but which is pulled off expertly thanks to Chris Wooding’s terrific storytelling abilities.
Wooding is mixing a lot of elements in this delicious stew of a book from the larger Speculative Fiction pantry, so to speak. We’ve got pirates, an ill defined future; sorcery (or rather daemonology); beings somewhere between living, dead, and undead; an often steampunkish feel, especially with Crake’s golem; depth of an imagined world and history; and sense-of-wonder adventure. In that sense, the book will very much appeal to readers who tend to science fiction over fantasy, and vice versa. I think Chris may have even dubbed what he’s doing in The Tales of the Ketty Jay as bucklepunk. The term certainly works for this satisfied reader.
Retribution Falls, while being a superb action/adventure novel, also features expertly drawn characters with considerable depth (and darkness for some) who grow over the course of the novel. Wooding has a hand for dialogue and overall character interactions that helps to keep the narrative rolling at a consistent clip.
I thought I might be able get through this review without mentioning the obvious parallel to this novel – Joss Whedon’s criminally short-lived series Firefly and spin-off film Serenity. The setting and crew, and even the respective Captains Frey and Reynolds could be alternate versions of each other. Wooding is a skilled enough storyteller and writer that Retribution Falls does stand on its own, both in its characters and narrative space. In reading the book and even upon reflection writing this review, another recent novel seems like a narrative cousin – Tobias Buckell’s terrific debut novel Crystal Rain, as well as the other novels set in the same milieu.
In the end, I can only give this novel the highest recommendation – adventure SF, with depth, at its finest. Here’s to picking up the next installment of the Tales of the Ketty Jay – The Black Lung Captain.
© 2011 Rob H. Bedford