Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
352 pages (ARC copy received)
Published by Gollancz, June 2009.
Review by Mark Yon
Retribution Falls is a rip-roaring full blown space-pirate adventure, SF with a touch of Fantasy, driven at a pace that scarcely leaves the reader time to deal with its implausibilities. It is a plot and character driven piece that opposes airships with machine guns, magic with science, betrayal with loyalty.
It’s also one of the best pieces of fun I’ve read in a long while.
The tale is thus: roguish Darian Frey, captain of the Ketty Jay, is down on his luck and looking for easy money to pay his debts. He is forced into a deal which involves him hijacking a cargo for magnate Gallian Thade from the Ace of Skulls. When it all goes badly wrong, Frey is forced to go on the run until he can clear his name, or find and kill the villains that caused Darian to mistakenly murder innocent people. Even if this means going against the might of the Coalition Navy and the Archduke’s personal elite, the Century Knights.
With him go his motley crew. An irregular rag-bag of misplaced individuals, their varied personalities reflect an interesting mix of traits and create much of the tension for the novel. These include the silent but loyal Murthian engineer, Silo; the ship’s cat, Slag; manic outflyer pilot Pinn and paranoid outflyer pilot Harkins; Grayther Crake, an aristocratic Daemonist whose loyalty to the captain is strained at the outset of this novel; the golem Bess, containing a daemon controlled by Crake; Malvery, the alcohol-dependent ship’s doctor, and the newest recruit, navigator Jez, with more to her than you might expect.
Their troubles lead them to hidden places and major battles, not to mention duels with Frey’s nemesis, his ex-fiancée Trinicia Dracken, commander of the Delirium Trigger. For Retribution Falls, the legendary secret pirate-town, seems to be both the cause and the possible solution to their problems.
It is a tale of such audacity that the reader has to suspend disbelief whilst reading this tale, with its origins in the pulps and its fashion determinedly retro-futuristic. There is a lot here that sounds familiar. However the skill of the writer is such that Chris manages to do this with aplomb. What makes this work is that Chris tells this tale with (like The Fade before it) a depth that belies its length. Though the book isn’t that long, the characters have personalities that make the reader care about their situation. It is this that raises the tale above many an average SF adventure.
The characterisation is as charismatic and as assured as Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Much of the interest comes from the fact that Frey and his compadres are not perfect people and make difficult choices in ever-more complex circumstances, at times contradictorily. As their multifarious motivations and values change through the novel, their psychological self-dissection is both logical and at times surprisingly bleak. By the end, however, the remoulding of the crew into a working team is a more positive resolution of sorts, though it is clear that there are still secrets kept and issues to be resolved, presumably in later books.
So, great fun overall, a whip-cracking pace and with characters you care about, this is the first of what I hope will be many. This one kept me up late reading, more than it should have. If you’re looking for a book where the pages just fly in reading, then look no further - this is a great read.
Recommended – and with a wonderful Stephan Martiniere cover too.
As a nice bonus, Darian Frey keeps a logbook for the Ketty Jay online:
Mark Yon, June 2009
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