RogerBW's Blog

Retribution Falls, Chris Wooding 10 August 2016

2009 steampunk fantasy. Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay and her crew of misfits, as they go about doing small-time jobs for small-time people. But they're all about to play for much higher stakes than they were ever expecting.

The steampunk content here is all about the aesthetics. I mean, you can say that aircraft are taking off,

aerium engines throbbing as their electromagnets turned refined aerium into ultralight gas to fill their ballast tanks. Separate, prothane-fuelled engines, which powered the thrusters, were warming up with an ascending whine.

and that's just fine – but it's never going to matter what powers the electromagnets, where prothane comes from or what it is, or just how negative the mass of that "ultralight gas" would have to be in order to lift these (armoured!) aircraft. What matters is that you have flying ships, and what a ship really is… is freedom.

And in fact you could saw off the steampunk aesthetic and transplant most of this story into the world of Firefly with very little difficulty. The worldbuilding is very thin: it is assumed that the reader already knows what self-important nobles sound like, how a pirate haven looks, and so on, and description is often elided in favour of getting on with the next bit of action (though even so the book gets off to a pretty slow start).

This is a crew of losers led by a loser of a captain, each with their Defining Moment that set them on this path (each of which, as in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, will be revisited in flashback, though with less excuse than that book managed), and the principal dramatic arc is the group's progression from a bunch of fugitives to a family.

But there's also the procedural arc, as Frey and his crew get hired for a really sweet job, it all goes horribly wrong, every man's hand is against them, and they have to prove their (relative) innocence. At least, once they've accepted that running away just isn't going to work.

Non-white-male roles are odd. The one black guy is an ex-slave who doesn't talk much. The lone female crewmember is only distinguished by not being as prone to indulge in drinking and whoring as some of the men, and she has other reasons for that anyway. There are two other female characters with any narrative time, both of them heiresses whom Frey promised to marry and then abandoned at the last moment; oddly enough, they aren't entirely positively inclined towards him. Well, it surprises Frey, but he's clearly an idiot, not to mention a stereotyped commitment-phobe.

That's really my main problem with this book. Other things can be written off because, well, it's an action-filled romp. But Frey is driving himself to destruction by making the same mistakes again and again and again, and even when things are looking up he has no clue that that's what he's been doing.

The other characters aren't much better developed, beyond their Transformative Moments. They do as much as they need to do, and subtle characterisation wasn't really what I was expecting; though Firefly did a better job than this does.

In all, enjoyable filler but not the sort of book I'd recommend seeking out unless you are particularly fond of Firefly-esque motley crews. Followed by The Black Lung Captain.

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