Who doesn’t love a good pirate story? The adventure, the bad-assery, the derring-do, living outside of the normal day-to-day drudgery of the world – it’s quintessential escapism. And in Retribution Falls Chris Wooding has taken a fractured band of pirates, slam-a-jammed them onto his dieselpunk-ish world, Atalon, where airships rule the skies thanks to the lighter-than-air gas Aerium (leave physics at the door if you’re going to enjoy this), and woven around them a deliciously knotty conspiracy that will bring them together and reveal some of their darkest secrets as they attempt to extricate themselves. It’s marvellous fun (with occasional breaks for misogyny), from beginning to end!
Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay a battered but beloved airship that is home for him and his messed up crew. I can’t describe them any better than ship’s doctor Malvery when he says:
“We’re not a crew! The cap’n’s only cap’n ’cause he owns the aircraft; I wouldn’t trust him to lead a bear to honey. None of us here signed on for adventure or riches, ’cause sure as spit there’s little enough of either … But mark me, ain’t one of us that’s not running from something, you included. I’ll bet my last swig of rum on that.”
And that they’re all running from something is the only thing that keeps them together at the beginning of the book. That and that no one else will have them because they’re mostly not very nice people: Frey is a gambling, whining, womanising lowlife, his two fighter pilots Harkins and Pinn are a nervous wreck and a piece of idiot scum respectively, doctor Malvery is a raging drunk, and Slag the cat is a vicious, evil-tempered people-hater. These five are almost balanced out by the quiet, decent engineer, Silo, the not-quite-passenger-not-quite-crew daemonist Crake, utterly lovable/occasionally violent golem Bess and new-recruit navigator Jez. In fact, Jez was the only character I was wholly on board with (Ha! On board with! Funny!) from the get go. Not because she doesn’t have dark secrets like the rest of them, but because she hasn’t gone down the self-pity/-hatred route like the men, she’s just getting on with it and generally out-performing them at every opportunity. I think Jez and Crake’s characterisation was the thing that kept me reading long enough to get hooked on the action, and caring about them, and Bess (*all the hearts*), got me through some of the more irritating moments when either Frey or Pinn came out with something ridiculously sexist.
Because there is a truly annoying vein of misogyny running through the book. On a crew of nine (including the cat) there’s only two females, one a golem that can be put to sleep at the blow of a whistle (really?!), the other only accepted by the crew because she’s not too attractive (REALLY?!). Then there are only three other named female characters who take part in the action, all gorgeous naturally, two of whom were previous love-interests of Frey’s. And let’s not even go into how being in love with Frey has completely defined those two ladies’ lives. And yet. And yet … detestable or not, Frey and Pinn’s opinions about women are a part of their characters, not something assumed by every individual in the story. And the big theme in Retribution is this dysfunctional group becoming a crew, and Frey becoming something more closely resembling an adult, so he’s got to have something to grow out of, I guess.
I’m going to give Wooding kudos for his writing skills here because the changes he works on Frey and the crew of the Ketty Jay are believable. He managed to elicit my begrudging sympathy for Harkins, my acceptance of Frey after spending two thirds of the book actively hating him for being such a whinge-bag, and my toleration (just about) of Pinn, who’s too stupid to grow and remains an absolute … insert expletive of choice here … right to the end. Maybe I should give myself a little kudos for continuing to read (*pats own back and gives self a biscuit*).
Which I did because, when all’s said and done, it’s a frigging awesome rollercoaster ride of an adventure story. In a fairly fragmented land only recently at peace with its neighbours and not quite at peace with itself there are many opportunities for ne’er-do-wells to make a profit, and Frey and crew take a so-obviously-a-set-up-it’s-blinding job to steal some jewels that quickly gets them, or more specifically him, framed for murder. They all bounce from one crisis to another narrowly avoiding arrest, death by sword, death by gunshot, death by explosion, hot lava-ish death, and death by execution, discovering a mythical pirate town and accidentally uncovering an evil plot to overthrow the Archduke, who heads the coalition in Vardia, along the way.
There is also magic. The brand of magic on Atalon is called daemonism, presented as a science, in which daemons drawn from the aether are bound to specific purposes within objects using harmonics to thrall the daemons, and Frankenstein-ish set ups to capture them. The daemonist bits of the story, which were mostly about Crake’s backstory, were some of my favourite parts and made for wonderfully spooky interludes amidst all the action. All the daemonist stuff in the story is really wicked too – earrings that can be used to eavesdrop, a ring and compass tracking device, a key that can open any door, and Frey’s cutlass (the coolest sword … ever). Crake is essentially Q to Frey’s less suave but equally misogynistic 007.
So, it’s good. It’s a fun ride and I’m definitely going to read the second book The Iron Lung Captain. This is what I want to see more of:
- Character development – we’ve not even scratched the surface yet. Frey’s got a long way to go, Pinn is irredeemable (prove me wrong Wooding, I’m begging you … or kill him off horribly), Crake’s got some stuff to work out, Silo is an almost untapped resource as yet (and don’t get me started on the stereotyping going on there!), and more Jez, more Jez, more Jez!
- Political shenanigans – the Awakeners are up to something and my conspiracy-theory-loving brain-compartment wants more. Is revolution on the way? Or something more sinister?
- Daemonism – I want Crake to get back in the game!
- Trinica Dracken – That can’t be the last we see of the dread pirate Dracken! The feminist in me needs her to get her own fully realised story (I’d like it to be Frey-free, but that’s not going to happen, this is just not that series).
- Pirate adventure! – More back-stabbing, more camaraderie, more gun-fights and sword-fights and fisticuffs, more treasure and plunder and loot! Yay!
And if it could be less sexist and introduce of few more well-rounded, not just there-to-sleep-with females, so much the better.
(I read this for the “Visit another world” Book Bingo category).