Retribution Falls is the first of several books by Chris Wooding featuring Captain Darian Frey and the crew of his airship the Ketty Jay. I read a review describing this book as a steampunk fantasy version of Firefly, which isn’t wholly inaccurate. Similar to the beloved show, the story is about a crew of freelancers on a ship looking for work and running into all kinds of trouble.
In this tale Frey takes on a job that promises to pay big, a simple piracy gig to rob a freighter with supposedly precious cargo. Unfortunately for him, the whole thing turns out to be a set-up. He ends up being framed for taking down the ship, a move which sets both the authorities and bounty hunters on his tail. But knowing that he wasn’t at fault, Frey, with the help of his crew, seeks to clear his name and unravel the conspiracy that has gotten him in trouble.
The first installment of the series, without giving too much away, largely ends up being about the crew of the Ketty Jay coming together and gelling into a crew behind Frey’s command as opposed to a bunch of freeloaders on a ship. This allows for solid character development arcs for all of the different crew members, especially Frey, but it is also a bit frustrating as almost all of the characters are kind of unlikable when the story starts (again, especially Frey).
Everyone on the Ketty Jay is there because they have nowhere else to be. Each of them is running from something, and none of them have better options than being on the ship. In fact, for some of them being elsewhere could be downright dangerous. At the start of the novel, and really most of the opening, this is all that is holding the crew together. None of them really care all too much for each other. And more than that, Frey doesn’t really care about any of them either. He feels all of the trouble in his life is due to bad luck, and he’s incredibly self-involved.
While Malcolm Reynolds or Han Solo are both roguish captains who (at least at first) have their own interests at heart, we do get to see both of them as valuing things other than themselves because they have crews they care about. While it takes some time for Mal to warm to Simon or River, at the start of Firefly he already views his other shipmates as family and will do what it takes to protect them. Similarly, even if Han isn’t interested in the rebellion right away, he has Chewie who he has a great deal of camaraderie with. As I said, Frey doesn’t have any deep connection his his shipmates, and while that does develop over the course of the story it makes him somewhat unrelatable early on, or at least it did for me.
In terms of the writing itself, I didn’t think that either the prose or the world building were incredibly strong, though more in subtle than overt ways. The prose isn’t bad, but it’s also not highly polished and has a bit more “showing” than I would like. Part of this is due to things in-world that will pop up when they appear and then have to be described when they could easily have been alluded to in earlier chapters.
Similarly, on the surface I can’t say that there’s anything “wrong” with the world building, but it sort of lazily falls into areas you might expect. By and large it’s a “white man’s world”. There are of course exceptions, but many of the women are whores or servers, and the racial traits mirror that of the imperialist English era with brown skinned people being distinctly “other” whether they are the enemy Samarlans (Ottomans) or people like the Murthians (black slaves).
I read a great article recently on how to write better female characters in fantasy, but it also touches on the pitfalls of “expectation” that writers will often fall into when world building and how readers will also ignore these things because they don’t expect anything different. If you’re up for the read, I think it’s very much worthwhile, and I think that Retribution Falls sort of…falls into a lot of these same traps. This doesn’t make it bad, but personally I get a little disappointed when I read a story where more could have been done to increase the amount of diversity among the characters. Because #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Overall, I will say that this is a fun read but nothing more than that. If you’re looking for a “popcorn read” or a fun page turner, then I can definitely recommend this book. It is fun, and it reads quickly with a lot of action and good pacing. If you’re looking for anything deeper than a good escapist read, then I would suggest looking elsewhere.
I did like the book enough, especially as the crew start coming together towards the end, that I think it’s likely I will continue reading the series. But not right away. For now I’ll be on to something else…