by Chris Wooding
Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. Crake is a daemonist in hiding, traveling with an armored golem and burdened by guilt. Jez is the new navigator, desperate to keep her secret from the rest of the crew. Malvery is a disgraced doctor, drinking himself to death. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man.
But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That’s if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
Retribution Falls is a really fun story. Really fun. Pirates, airships, a steampunkish feel, magic, demons, adventure, conspiracy... it has all the elements that let you know you’re in for a quick, exciting read. It’s an extremely fast paced book, barely pausing at any point for filler or downtime, and yet there are a surprising amount of back stories thrown in, all of them interesting. Chris Wooding is an expert at worldbuilding, slipping in facts and fascinating details that give such a vivid feeling of the world, without ever slowing down the plot or distracting from the story.
The rag-tag crew of the Ketty Jay will draw inevitable comparisons with the TV series Firefly. The book has a similar kind of roguish-twinkle feel to Firefly; they’re pirates, but they’re not the really bad kind of pirates, and there’s something unavoidably lovable about their underdog position and their attempts to stay ahead of everyone who’s out to get them. The characters in Retribution Falls can be a little one-note – they’re a character type and in general they stick to it – but the back stories here do add a little more depth to certain people. In particular I liked Crake, the daemonist who aids the crew with his daemon-based magic, and Jez, the new navigator and the ship’s only woman. I found these two the most human of the characters, and I really felt for Crake. The more minor characters were less explored but did add some tension and humour. I liked the doctor the best of the side-character bunch and would like to learn more about him in later books.
The captain, Darian Frey, was a hard character to like, but felt like a very honest portrayal of the kind of man that might end up in his position. He’s always running away, always trying to find someone else to blame for his problems. There were points where I became very frustrated with him, and other points where I honestly hoped Draken would capture him and the rest of the crew would get away. However, though Darian is often unlikeable, his slightly car-crash approach to life is fascinating to read about.
As the book goes on, most of the crew members begin to reveal a darker side, aspects that make the reader question whether they are really the good guys. This isn’t explored very deeply in this book; we’re still supposed to want them to come out on top, but I’m hoping this may be touched on a bit more later in the series. The book also succeeds in making the reader feel sympathy for Draken, the woman chasing down the Ketty Jay, though it perhaps succeeded a little too well with me. There were points where I honestly wanted her to win, but then, perhaps that was the point. This is a book about pirates, and I like that lines of morality were hard to draw. No-one should feel like they are entirely the good or bad guys here.
With an interesting storyline involving conspiracy, pirates and murder, memorable characters, action, plenty of humour, adventure, airships, daemon-magic, and a malevolent ship’s cat, Retribution Falls is a quick, fun read. There isn’t really anything surprising in the book, with some elements being quite predictable, but it’s done so well there is a great amount of satisfaction in how the events roll out. There is a lot about this world that I love, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of it with the Ketty Jay’s crew in later books.
I listened to this as an audiobook, so wanted to quickly mention the narrator, Rupert Degas, who does an absolutely fantastic job and really brings the book to life. Each character felt pitch-perfect to me, and his reading combined with Chris Wooding's excellent writing kept me engrossed throughout. I'll be looking for more of Rupert Degas' work too!