Darian Frey – captain of the freighter of freebooters, the Ketty Jay – is in trouble. When he’s offered fifty thousand ducats for a sole job, he can’t resist accepting. But when the job goes awry, Frey realises that there was more to the offer than met the eye: Darian Frey has been framed. Evading capture by various parties, Frey and his crew set about to discover who is behind their misfortune, and somehow to find a way to escape the ‘justice’ that bears down upon them…
Fans of Firefly will probably find Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls a bit like Marmite – and either love it or hate it. It seems a little harsh to call the book a ‘ripoff’ (as Alice of Sandstorm Reviews does) but then again, it would be an understatement merely to call it ‘inspired’ by Joss Whedon’s widely-loved TV show. The similarities are bountiful: a crew of genial degenerates and runaways, a ruggedly endearing captain, a fugitive aristocratic passenger with a dark secret, dialogue full of quips and one-liners, and even a scene where members of the crew attend a ball in disguise. Whilst the action is not set in space but all safely within the atmosphere of his world, Wooding has conceived of the gas ‘aerium’, used to provide buoyancy to huge craft which would otherwise find it impossible to keep aloft and/or to manoeuvre in the ways Wooding describes. Aerium is a good idea – a simple and unproblematic explanation underpinning the book’s aero-technology – but it also seems as though this was just a way to ensure the book didn’t follow Firefly’s lead too closely, whilst allowing much of the same kind of action to ensue.
These parallels might vex Firefly’s fans – but, on the flipside, may also attract them. I myself love Joss Whedon’s series, immediately identifying its pervasive influence in Retribution Falls, but I still enjoyed the book a lot. It’s just so very fun. Its good-humoured tone and satisfying action sequences make it a great read, if a predictable one. The book would have benefitted from a more intricate plot (on dual levels – the conspiracy unmasked by the Ketty Jay’s crew is hardly surprising, and quite basic as conspiracies go), but if you’re looking for something that won’t tax you too much, but which is still engaging enough to pull you happily through 400 pages, Retribution Falls is a good choice.
I’m clearly not saying that the book doesn’t have its problems. Whilst Wooding succeeds in giving his characters interesting back-stories and motivations (Crake and Jez stand out here, and the ins-and-outs of Frey’s unfortunate love-life give him some essential emotional complexity), the characters’ development was all too often told instead of shown. I can’t say I was completely convinced by Frey’s changing attitude to captain-hood, despite Wooding telling me emphatically that the change had occurred.
I was willing to overlook this slightly pedestrian style of characterisation, however, as Wooding slathers so much gallivanting, boisterous fun over it that I found I didn’t mind it much. But a failing that did stand out for me was the treatment of female characters in Wooding’s novel – and I notice that Sandstorm Reviews also picks up on this. In Retribution Falls, the women seem to feature mainly as props to Frey’s masculine escapades. Although Wooding does draw our attention to Frey’s own misconceptions of the women he is involved with, it does not change the fact that their interest as characters depends on their relationships with him – relationships in which losing Frey acts as a trigger for them to fall apart/live unfulfilled etc… The sole female character who might give relief from this is Jez, but this relief depends upon the fact that she is seen as ‘unfeminine’ from the start. There’s that issue swept under the carpet, then. She can get on with being hard-ass and ‘masculine’.
Another point I wasn’t sure about was the setting. Its geography, society, and technology were given but superficial attention – there was enough to get by, but not enough to give it any real distinction, or to enable me to describe it precisely. There’s a vaguely steampunk feel to the novel, with the characters wielding shotguns and cutlasses (shotguns again reminiscent of the Western aesthetic of Firefly) alongside machine guns and ‘autocannons’: ‘retro-future’ is how Peter F. Hamilton describes it on the novel’s back cover. There’s also a dashing of magic, too. This is fine, but as you can see, I don’t have a real grasp on the world of Retribution Falls. This is possibly because most of it takes place in an aircraft, but even when the crew ventured on land I felt as though I needed more from Wooding to help me picture and understand his setting. As I sit here, I couldn’t tell you much more about Yortland than that it was cold.
It’s understandable that opinions have been divided over this book – as indeed my own is. But in the end, Retribution Falls gave me hours of enjoyable reading time, complete with the more-than-occasional chuckle. So I lean more towards the opinion of Graeme (Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review) than Sandstorm Reviews, although I sympathise with many of the latter’s complaints. In the end, Wooding gets away with a lot through the sheer swashbuckling momentum of his plot.