Written By: Chris Wooding
‘Retribution Falls’ is set a long time ago… but somehow it’s still sci-fi. Sound familiar? Darian Frey is a strange mix of Mal Reynolds, Han Solo and Jack Sparrow. That is a pretty good mix if you ask me. Frey is the fractious Captain of the Ketty Jay; a modified Ironclad ship that “can’t decide if she is a light cargo hauler or a heavy fighter”, and so isn’t “much good as either”. The rogue Captain leads a mismatched band that he loosely refers to as “crew” on slightly illegal ventures beneath the nose of the Coalition Navy.
Unfortunately, his quietly contraband escapades take a turn for the worse, when Frey picks the wrong freighter to rob. An unexpected explosion causing mass murder sends Frey and his crew careering through a gauntlet of false friends and benevolent foes, all the while trying to prove their innocence and dodge unfriendly ghosts of the past.
Chris Wooding has always been one of my favourite authors. When I was still in high-school, I read his novel ‘The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray’, which has stuck with me, and inspired a lot of my own fiction writing since. When I heard he had written a sci-fi series about a rogue Captain and a crew with dark and hidden pasts, I was beside myself with excitement. While the novel did not quite live up to my expectations, it is still a romping good read.
The book is light, and the story expects very little from you as a reader. Wooding has the ease of experience to guide you through the plot with a gentle but assured hand. He is a confident storyteller, and at no point do you feel at sea as a reader, even though the design of the aircrafts is based upon a Peter Pan-like idea, where sailing ships take to the skies.
‘Retribution Falls’ is in fact, not set in space as the blurb led me to believe, but rather employs a Steampunk theme of industrial airships. It is a refreshing change, and lends a certain exotic and retro feel to the novel, while at the same time we can stay grounded as readers in the strong, relatable characters Wooding populates his world with.
As a World Builder, Wooding tends to err on the light side, throwing away place names and describing cityscapes with an air of bluntness. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as Wooding sets more store in his characters, and his plot, leaving the reader with a sense of relaxed storytelling that allows us to settle into the psyches of the characters with less distracting detail.
Wooding shows us several different sides of Frey throughout the novel, and our impressions of him change as we read through the action and the plot exposition. The other crew members are also revealed as complex with the same gradual expansion of their histories; the most interesting of which is perhaps Crake- the reserved daemonologist, and Jez who is hiding something sizable from the beginning.
In terms of theme, the steampunk setting allows for a hint of the supernatural, which is incorporated through the mysterious Crake. A nice mix of industrial technology and the arcane paranormal allows the characters to thrive in a vivid world.
The novel is filled with sharp wit and fast moving action scenes. There are high-speed chases and slow, suspenseful reveals, punctuated by quirky and revealing dialogue. On occasion, the novel does suffer through some slight lulls, however there’s always a plot twist or gun-battle waiting just around the corner to keep you reading.
‘Retribution Falls’ has all the ingredients, but fell slightly short of the mark for me. However, as the first part of a series, I feel Wooding has the opportunity to build on his world and characters, which he set-up beautifully in this old-fashioned adventure story, to make a very powerful set of ‘Tales of the Ketty Jay’ indeed.