Orion UK, 2009 (Surprise, no US date that I’ve seen)
Take one part Firefly, one part steampunk, one part magic and shake it all up. The results are something like Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls. Darrian Frey is the “captain” of the Ketty Jay, an airship whose crew of malcontents and rejects barely scrapes by doing odd-bits of mostly illegitimate work. Frey, who cares more about his ship than the lives of his crew, takes a job offer to rob a loaded airship and has every intention of keeping the money to himself; crew be damned. Unfortunatley for Frey, and the rest of the Ketty Jay, things go horribly awry and the hapless crew finds themselve pursued from all quarters. Retribution Falls isn’t a novel that is going to cause major introspection but what it will due is take you on damned fine adventure that’ll have you laughing, cheering, and cursing at each twist and turn.
I think almost every review of Retribution Falls out there has mentioned the similarity and frequent similarities to everyone’s favorite short-lived space western. There are plenty of difference mind you but, for Browncoats, the parallels are there in spades; not only in the obvious thematic overtones but in certain similarities between characters. In particular the Frey/Crake relationship is very, very similar to the Mal/Simon relationship and Crake himself, a fallen/disgraced son of an aristocrat on the run from something, is very much in the vein of everyone’s favorite surgeon. You also have a mysterious race of human like raiders who exist on the outskirts of the known world who are feared for their ferocity and inhuman capacity for violence and slaughter that are most definatley analagous to Reavers. Similarities asside Woodings characters are their own people with deep, frequently tragic, pasts who each get their moment to shine and whose growth and confrontations with their own histories provides a certain amount of emotional weight to what might have been a simple adventure tale.
Jez, the navigator and newest member of the crew, in particular drew me in early with the mystery behind her origins. Wooding does a wonderful job of drawing out the mystery of exactly who she is, dropping hints here and there in a trail of bread crumbs that inevitably leads to a big payoff. I was also particularly impressed with the way Wooding handled Frey who, when the novel opens, is a bit of an ass. Wooding enacts a believable personality shift in Frey over the course of the novel as confrontations with his past, while painful and frequently life-threatening, manage to allow Frey to surpass his own self-imposed limitations and, in essence, reconnect (at least somehwate) with the person he used to be. It is some clever writing, that despite requiring some heavy backstory, manages to be both interesting and exciting thanks to Wooding’s well-crafted dialogue.
I would say that Retribution Falls is at it’s best when there are a group of characters in a scene and the writing absolutely sparkles when Wooding is able to play the distinct personalities of the crew off of one another. Not that the writing elsewhere isn’t good, only that the banter and bickering amongst the Ketty Jay’s crew make for some of the novel’s best moments. I particularly enjoyed Silo who plays an almost Silent Bob like role, keeping quiet and to himself and chiming in at moments, and with words, that are granted extra weight be his typically taciturn nature. Furthermore the dialogue between Frey and pirate/freebooter villain Captain Dracken makes for some tense, emotional moments that are quite memorable.
While I think that character outshines setting I don’t think it outshines it by that much. Wooding has crafted a superbly realized world here with shades of 19th living combined with an understated use of magic to create a rather unique setting. Though the plot and characters frequently take centerstage Wooding manages to fill in some gap on the world’s recent history of war with a neighboring nation and some light details on political structure (the nation is ruled by an Archduke while other Dukes serve as governers/provincal administrators, was about as much as I can clean). I particularly enjoyed Woodings handling of the religious tension of his setting. The Awakeners are sort of strong religious minority quickly growing in popularity who follow what they believe is the sentient will of the planet whose thoughts and needs they interpret through various methods of divination (you name it, they use it). While most believe them to be frauds I found it interesting that no character, even the daemonist Crake who has more reason to hate them then anyone, never outright says that their beliefs are wrong. I like that Wooding leaves the possibility of truth behind the Awakeners theology, if not their methods of interepation, an open question.
Unfortunatley for U.S. readers they only way you’re going to get Retribution Falls is via import (Book Depository worked well for me) as I’ve seen no news on a release here in the States though I suspect it’ll make its way over here sometime in the (likely distant) future. If you do import the book I don’t think you’ll regret it. Retribution Falls is a thrilling read full of vibrant characters that Wooding brings to life with ease. According to Wooding’s website Retribution Falls is the first of a series, but that all books will be standalones, which sounds good to me. I, for one, will be looking forward to next book (and only grumbling slightly when I have to import it again).