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Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
Book Name: Retribution Falls
Author: Chris Wooding
Publisher(s): Spectra (US) Indigo (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Steampunk
Release Date: April 26, 2011 (US) January 5, 2012 (UK)

I feel like I have a thing for crews. In my first review here I praised the quirky scoundrels that took centre stage in Patrick Weeke’s The Palace Job and, after a brief stint in Earthsea, I’m back with another review involving another gang of less-than-reputable thieves. No, these are not the beloved crews of the Serenity or the U.S.S. Enterprise but the greasy, morally dampened wretches of the Ketty Jay from Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls. If you’re hoping to find similar men (and women) to those found aboard the above ships, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But, so as not to get ahead of myself, let’s start from the beginning.

Dealt A Poor Hand

We meet our unheroic protagonists in the middle of a rather sticky situation. Captain Darian Frey looks on as one of his passengers/accomplices, Grayther Crake, is being threatened by smuggler Lawsen Macarde. It seems the man had been smart enough to learn that the aerium he had been sold – the fuel used for airships flown by men like Frey – wasn’t exactly top quality. Playing Russian-roulette with Crake’s skull, the smuggler demands the code to the Captain’s prized ship, the Ketty Jay, but he refuses, even when Macarde’s threats turn into sweat-inducing clicks of the trigger. As you can see, we learn very early on that those aboard the Ketty Jay are not exactly the empathic comrades we’ve come to love from watching shows like Firefly, Star Trek, or Buffy. It’s a bit jarring but as you continue to read, Retribution Falls serves almost as an origin story for Frey’s crew to become something like those previously mentioned.

Eventually the Captain and Crake find their way out of Lawsen’s clutches thanks to some luck, running, gun-fighting, and a much needed golem attack before hopping into Frey’s airship and taking to the safety only clear, blue sky provides. Without many safe ports left to the small time crook, Frey flies to the town Marklin’s Reach to meet with a contact that offers a big pay day for a simple job. Lured by the promise of immense wealth and ignoring his instincts to stay small and walk away, Darian goes all in and takes the job. What happens next throws the Ketty Jay into a big pond of even bigger fish. In order to survive, Frey is going to have to change and become something that actually resembles a captain and not just a scared man with a ship.

While the story of Retribution Falls isn’t one we haven’t read before – band of people is betrayed and framed for X so now they must stand and fight – I really appreciated the theme that ran through the entirety of the novel. Every single member of the crew is running from something and once their course is set before them and they have to start being active instead of passive, they end up coming to terms, at least in part, with their own personal struggles. It’s very much a novel about growth, maturity and believing in yourself to a degree…except, you know, within a science-fantasy world filled with airships, gun fights, magic, and pirates.

You call this a crew?

You know how Kirk, Spock, and Bones have that charming trifecta that make them so fun to watch? Or how Captain Mal knows when to be a commander or a friend to get the most out of those aboard his ship? Yeah, you’re not going to see that same camaraderie in the crew of the Ketty Jay when you crack this book open. Don’t get me wrong, they do start to get there by the book’s end but, as I said, this novel is the origin of what you want Frey and his shipmates to become. Unfortunately, I found myself less interested or, better to say, less engaged because of it. It’s an interesting idea to see the humble beginnings of such a ragtag bunch of misfits and watch them grow into something formidable and compelling but, in this particular case, I didn’t feel enough attachment to everyone to become as connected as I would have preferred.

The number of the Ketty Jay is a steady five; six if you include their cantankerous cat Slag. Crake is only a passenger (at least at first) and though his golem, Bess, is a formidable piece of daemonism, I’d say the others see “her” more as a tool than anything else. In constant need of a navigator, Jez brings the total aboard Frey’s ship to nine once she joins up early in the novel. Each fills a specific roll aboard the ship such as Malvery being the doctor too afraid to use a scalpel and Harkins, the anxiety ridden outflier that can only be calm inside his Firecrow ship, but the novel focuses mostly on the Captain, Crake, and Jez. To be fair, each individual has their moments throughout the book, but the story is split most evenly between these three.

My biggest gripe with each character was that it felt like they were too pathetic or too sleazy. They are by no means evil people but it took a long time for them to be redeemed, at least in my eyes. When the author opens the novel by having his Captain not giving up the code to his ship at the very possible death of another, a clear picture is painted about who this guy is or has become. As the novel progresses you see Darian transform into a better, good man, especially in how he views his crew, but it was a slow process. That may be exactly what the author was going for and, if that’s the case, he did precisely what he set out to do. Unfortunately, it forced me to keep my distance emotionally from his main characters and I didn’t get as attached to them as I wanted to.

What I can say is that Chris writes each of them quite well. They all have their own voice and personality and quirks that help them stand out. They almost feel like caricatures of a ship’s crew and I think that helps them feel bigger. I especially enjoyed the aristocratic Grayther interacting with the seedy Frey and them having to come to terms with each other after Darian’s betrayal at the hands of Macarde. Chris breathes a lot of life into his characters and though I may not have fallen in love with them, I did have fun with them.

Where are we?

A lot is going on in the history of this setting. There were two wars that happened, racial tensions, the presence of magic (or science?) known as daemonism, and a religious group known as the Awakeners who play a large role in the woes that befall Frey and his companions. With a world so deep, you’d think I’d have a greater sense of place while reading and yet, by the time I closed the book, I didn’t really feel engrossed by the novel’s setting. The author paints great images of landscapes and the environments the Ketty Jay is forced to traverse but I’d be hard pressed to tell you about a city or town that stuck out to me, besides a key place that I’d rather not spoil by mentioning.

The problem stems from our time looking through the eyes of Darian Frey and the other crew members. So much has happened to them in the outside world that their home, their safe place is the Ketty Jay (or the outflier ships piloted by Pinn and Harkins) and because of this, we spend far more time experiencing the ship than the world it flies through. Again, this is probably what the author was going for, but I think it created a loss of intimacy when you have a crew that’s hard to be intimate with. We don’t care as much where Captain Mal, Zoe, Wash and the others land because we have no problem spending time with them while their cooped up aboard Serenity. Those aboard the Ketty Jay, however, do not pull you into their world and it could benefit the reader to see a little bit more of what else is out there.

However, what this does allow for is greater insight into the minds of our protagonists, especially the Captain, Crake, and Jez. You get to be intimate with them on a more personal, empathic level and grow to feel for them based on their struggles. Even Malvery, to some extent. The reader doesn’t spend as much time with the boisterous, alcohol chugging doctor but his redemption is just as glorious as the others. I did feel for these people, Crake most of all, and if the author is able to squeeze your heart when writing about a bunch of miscreants, thieves, and loudmouths, they must be doing something write.

Playing The Hand You’re Dealt

Retribution Falls is a fun read. Chris Wooding created a world filled with airships, pirates, and gun-toting scoundrels that feels just as gritty and grimy as it should. Where some novels are glistening things of shiny steel, this is more a rusted, oil stained clunker you can’t help but enjoy, despite its flaws. His action is fast paced and loud, his villains are sufficiently terrible and devious, and if you’re looking for a different kind of Captain and crew, the Ketty Jay might just be the place you’ll find them. I had hoped for something more with this book, but even though I didn’t get what I wanted I still had quite a fun ride. Sometimes that’s enough.



  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    This is one of y favourite books; it’s funny thought because it is one of those books that divide opinion. If you like your fantasy light and pop-y then this book is for you. If you like it deep and serious, look else where 😉 I also think that a lot of the book will depend whether you like Frey or dislike him – if you roll your eyes at him then you will quickly find his escapades tedious. If you enjoy spending time following him then you will find them amusing 🙂

  2. Avatar Phil Norris says:

    A brilliant series of books which sadly recently came to an end. Here’s hoping Chris revisits sometime even if not with the min characters (Century Knights books please).

  3. Avatar Alister Davison says:

    I was similarly upset when this series came to an end. I imagine it would have been a tough decision not to continue, so my respect goes to Chris Wooding for not giving the the crew of the Ketty Jay any chance of getting stale.

    Wooding’s Braided Path trilogy is worth a read, too: it’s more traditional fantasy, but with an interesting twist that makes it quite unique.

  4. It’s light and breezy entertainment., the Ketty Jay novels and if they didn’t rock my world, they gave me enough pleasure while reading them, certainly.

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