by Chris Wooding
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Benjamin Wald
Spectra Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345522511
Date: 26 April 2011 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Retribution Falls follows the struggles of a rag tag crew of the airship Ketty Jay as they try to eke out a living through a series of jobs that are just on the wrong side of legality, all the while trying to avoid the attention of the coalition navy. This novel is the first in a series of novels that will follow the crew of the Ketty Jay, and it does well to both set up the characters and provide plenty of hooks for future stories. Chris Wooding has crafted an entertaining story, with plenty of action and engaging characters, but some fairly serious flaws prevent this from being anything more than light entertainment.
The plot centers around the hardships that befall the Ketty Jay when Captain Frey takes on a job that is too good to be true. He is offered a vast sum of money to engage in a bit of piracy and bring a sealed chest to his secretive employer. However, the job goes badly wrong, leaving Captain Frey and the rest of the crew on the run from pretty much everyone, and strongly suspecting that they have been set up. The pace of the novel never lets up, careening from disaster to disaster as Frey slowly pieces together the conspiracy he has inadvertently become embroiled in. Wooding does a good job of slowly revealing the full story. It's a fairly conventional conspiracy story, but it is nicely executed, with various plot strands coming together for a satisfying conclusion.
The novel is set on a planet where the major cities are isolated from land travel, so most commerce must rely on airships, lifted by a superlight gas that is produced from aerium, over which wars have recently been fought. Other than the airships, the technology is somewhat old-fashioned, with pistols and rifles backed up by swords and the occasional tripod mounted Gatling gun. In other words, it is a steam punk style setting.
The political structure is basically a monarchy, with an archduke in place of a king and dukes ruling each of the nine provinces. I found the setting disappointingly conventional in many ways. There is no real consideration given to how the kind of isolation of the various regions of the country by land would have affected the political structure. Historical Greece was similarly split up by mountain ranges, with cities connected by sea, and this resulted in a system of city states rather than a centralized government. There is no hint of such a past here, however, and a hereditary rulership seems to be just assumed as a matter of course. In general, the setting seems to be mostly stage dressing, not a consistently thought out society. Hopefully the setting will be fleshed out in later books, but for now it seems as if Wooding has just thrown in the various tropes of steampunk without giving too much concern to providing a consistent justification for their presence.
The cast of characters is quite large. It includes the seven members of the crew of the Ketty Jay, as well as several recurring antagonists. Wooding does a good job of giving each character a distinct voice, although a few of the minor characters, particularly the pilots Pinn and Harkins, seem to be layered with idiosyncrasies just for the sake of making them stand out. The characters are easy to relate to, and Captain Frey in particular has an easy charisma that makes it almost impossible not to like him despite his frequent displays of weakness and selfishness. However, as engaging as the characters are, they are not particularly realistic. All except for Frey are defined around some central weakness or secret that dominates their lives. While this makes for an easy hook to get inside the characters heads, it tends to make them somewhat shallow and one sided.
Frey is a bit of an exception to this; while he is as flawed as any of the other characters he has a bit more depth. He is also thoroughly a scoundrel, at least at the beginning of the book. Not only that, he is a self deceiving scoundrel who manages to convince himself, time and again, that what happens to him is not his fault. The major character arc for Frey is his slow realization of his own weakness, and his partial redemption in a new found devotion to his crew. However, I never really bought the redemptive aspect of this character arc. Wooding does such a good job of showing us how selfish and oblivious Frey is at the beginning of the novel that his later reform rings false, especially since Frey never goes so far as to actually apologize or try to make amends to any of those who have been harmed by his earlier selfishness.
The plotting and writing are fast paced and highly effective, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Retribution Falls. It is definitely a page turner. However, the thinness of the setting and characterization, combined with the fairly standard adventure plot, prevent this from being anything other than light reading.