Review: “Retribution Falls”

Living in the outskirts of a major city, I spend about one hour a day commuting by subway and bus. So I read a lot and I have decided to share my opinions of some of these “travel books”.

A few days ago, I finished Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding, book #1 in a series about captain Frey, his airship the Ketty Jay and her crew. I picked up this book at the Science Fiction Bookshop because it claims to be a dieselpunk adventure. Well, the label is partially correct. The Ketty Jay’s world is eclectic: dieselpunk airships, swashbuckling pirates, scheming renaissance-ish nobles, dirty wild-west-style towns, foul sorcery, et cetera. I see clear influences from Josh Whedon’s Firefly and the ultra-tough lawmen look like something out of Warhammer 40K. On the other hand, the story’s pirates and aristocrats seem to be inspired by pop-culture versions of the 18th century, i.e. tarpunk rather than dieselpunk.

The Ketty Jay is crewed by a motley bunch of scoundrels and drunkards, brought to the ship by the whims of a nasty Fate. Most are on the run from misfortunes or crimes. Few are likable. Their main job seems to be to survive in a crapsack world. Yes, this is a place where people generally are selfish, arrogant and/or ruthless. Living here is not for the squeamish.

The main plot of Retribution Falls has two strands. The obvious one: Captain Frey and crew become scapegoats for someone else’s assassination scheme. They spend the story trying to uncover the real culprit and thereby escaping the hangman’s noose. The less obvious one: The transformation of this ragtag bunch into a true crew with a team spirit. It does not come easy because several have good reasons to mistrust or loathe each other.

The arid world is colorful, the tech is great, some of the story twists are good, but the book still fails to enthuse me. My main objections:

1. I have a hard time feeling sympathy for the scoundrels in the crew, particularly captain Frey. I’d rather wish that his arch-nemesis captain Dracken nails him to the wall. Two crew members are somewhat likable, however: Jez the navigator, suffering unjustly from a “curse”, and Silo the engineer, an escaped slave with no known history of misdeeds.

2. Predictability. I have seen this kind of story too many times before. Too often I know what is about to happen.

3. Poor plotting. The crew members had Lady Luck helping them out too many times during their adventures. Also, when the badguys know about the existence of “gadget sorcery”, they should be smart enough to protect themselves better.

When I watch Firefly, I care for the Serenity‘s crew. I get no similar feeling when reading Retribution Falls. Which is sad, because I like the basic concept and the airships a lot.

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