By Chris Wooding
(Gollancz, 18 June 2009)
Every now and then a book comes along that's a bit different, something refreshing, quirky even, a change from the norm. The Lies of Locke Lamora springs to mind, as does The Blade Itself. Both those novels breathed some fresh air into the genre. Not only were they a bit different, they also happened to be a hell of a lot of fun as well.
Retribution Falls is very similar in this respect - it's fresh, it's funny and it's an excellent reminder of what you can do with the genre when you actually try and invoke a bit of originality in your writing.
The novel follows the various misadventures of the crew of the Ketty Jay, a modified airship. Captained by the selfish womaniser Darian Frey, the crew includes a surgeon more competent with a shotgun than a scalpel, an aristocrat with a flair for daemonology, a secretive navigator who is clearly more than the sum of her parts, two support pilots (one with a deathwish, the other with a fear of anything that moves), a silent, brooding engineer, and a cat with an amusing name that has a tendency to suffocate crew members by sleeping on their faces.
They're a varied bunch, but they have one thing in common - they're all on the run, for one reason or another. The action starts when Frey receives an offer that's too good to be true - 50,000 ducats for a simple bit of piracy. Naturally, the offer is to good to be true...because it's not true at all - it's merely the first part of a sinister plan that threatens to plunge the entire continent of Vardia into civil war. With what seems to be half the civilised world after him, Frey leads his unlikely band of heroes on a merry chase to clear their names and avoid the noose...
Retribution Falls is FUN. Note the use of capitals there. That's what the book is really about; a ripping yarn of dogfights, piracy, double-dealing and double-crossing. It's often easy to forget that reading is meant to be entertainment, and as much as I like deep, meaningful novels, sometimes I just like to kick back and be entertained. Retribution Falls is perfect in this regard, and for several reasons.
The first is that Wooding has absolutely nailed the characters. For all the exciting dogfights and action sequences, this is actually a story driven by its characters. Darian Frey is superbly crafted, and his journey of self-discovery is fascinating to watch unfold. I can only speak for myself, but if a protagonist hasn't changed over the course of the book, I find myself wondering what the point of it all is. Frey changes - a heck of a lot, and Wooding deserves credit for the way he slowly reveals Frey's background, explaining why he became the man he is, and for making his gradual change so believable.
The support cast are equally well crafted, and Wooding takes care to ensure that the story of each crew member is carefully explored - and what fascinating stories they are. While the tone of the novel is decidedly light-hearted, there's a surprising amount of darkness and angst lurking at the heart of these characters. But none fall under the cliche of 'token-person-with-a-dark-past' - yes, they are all on the run from their respective pasts, but their stories are so well constructed that it gives them real depth and resonance instead of making them tired cliches. I particularly liked Crake's story, which provides a delightful twist - one of the sort that you realise just before it's revealed.
Wooding's masterclass in characterisation doesn't end with the crew of the Ketty Jay, however. Frey's arch nemesis, Captain Dracken of the Delirium Trigger (yep, we have plenty of aircraft with cool names) is excellently portrayed, as are the Century Knights and various other characters that pop in and out of the story. I really like the way Wooding attempts to inject personality into characters that only appear in the story for one scene, and here his efforts really come to fruition.
The characterisation is matched by the plot. In short, it's superbly crafted and keeps you guessing. Wooding clearly decided that pace was the name of the game, and subsequently Retribution Falls rips along at breakneck speed, barely allowing you to pause for breath. Put simply, there's not a dull moment. This is aided by the fluid, accessible prose that is perfect for this sort of story. Now, I'm not familiar with Wooding's other novels, though I have had a flick through his The Braided Path trilogy (which I was rather pleased to find that I own, though how it came into my possession remains a mystery). The writing style in that trilogy seems completely different from the wry humour of Retribution Falls, so from what I can see Wooding made something of a departure from his earlier works and tried writing in a style that is totally different from anything he's done before. It works - very well indeed.
Another positive aspect is the world Wooding has created - a strange, retro-future world where airships, guns and electricity sits happily alongside daemons and 'magic' swords (yep, there's a magic sword in there - but it works really well). The pace of the plot doesn't leave much room for that much exposition regarding the world, yet Wooding manages to imbue his world with both a distinct character and history. There's plenty more to come in subsequent novels (the world seems vast) but there's plenty of cool elements that surface in this novel. I particularly liked all the references to 'The Wrack' (there's one flashback chapter concerning the inhabitants of this part of the world which had me giddy with excitement) and also the way the demons are summoned and controlled (by sound frequency as it happens - a really nice idea).
Drawbacks? Can't think of any. Honestly. The only thought that nagged me was that Malvery needed a little more development, but that - pleasingly - was addressed right at the end of the book. My only complaint is that the book had to end. Wooding has already mentioned that a follow-up is due next year, and believe me - that will be one of the first books on my list for 2010.
Verdict: Retribution Falls is a superb, ripping yarn. Great characters, tight plot, relentless pace, and a fascinating world full of promise for future instalments. Prepare to be entertained.