I've mentioned this before in a number of places but I'm eagerly awaiting the death of the superhero movie and the rebirth of the pulp adventure. Reality doesn't seem to be playing along with my dreams there, at least not in the film world (though I'd argue that 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is space opera and the first 'Captain America' is pulp action). In the world of literature, however, a number of authors are creating glorious pulp adventures that make my heart sing. I'm overjoyed to live in a world where authors like David Barnett (the 'Gideon Smith' books), Al Ewing (the 'El Sombra' novels) and David Levine ('Arabella of Mars') create wonders that are very old-school but still brand new.
Well, let's add Chris Wooding to that list. I simply adored 'Retribution Falls' and it's hard to categorise it, other than calling it pulp adventure. Sure, it's a pirate novel, but we're not in the Caribbean or the 17th century. It's also a fantasy because there are concepts here which don't follow the laws of physics. And it feels like a sci-fi book, mostly because the airships that these pirates fly seem to be much more like the Millennium Falcon or the Serenity than any steampunk zeppelin. While we never go to space (and it isn't remotely suggested as possible), the single planet to which we're confined is clearly not our own.
What makes it all work though is the way in which Wooding works his craft. This is far from his debut as the author's note suggests that eighteen books carry his name, so it's perhaps not too surprising to find that he has nailed a few concepts that many other authors would dearly love to master. One is certainly action, as the cliffhangers keep on coming, prompting us to read on until 450 pages have fallen by the wayside and we suddenly realise we need to get up for work. That's merely the most obvious success.
Another, deeper and more satisfactory win is the way in which he throws a whole slew of characters at us, whose motivations are completely different and who don't necessarily even like each other, but who still grow together in a thoroughly believable fashion until, hey, we have a crew that should roll through any number of sequels. In fact, we may not even like the characters ourselves at first, at least not until we truly get to know them, but they grow on us just as they grow on each other.
Our lead is Darian Frey, a small-time smuggler, gambler and pirate who owns a small-time airship called the Ketty Jay. He's a reluctant anti-hero with very little ambition; if anything, he wants to stay small-time because then the powers that be won't ever notice that he even exists. He feels more like Mal Reynolds than Han Solo, but there's something of both in his make-up, or at least there will be once he discovers some actual purpose. At the beginning, he's a poor excuse for a human being and he probably doesn't like himself any more than we do. He has to grow.
The trigger for growth arrives when he's set up by a whispermonger by the name of Xandian Quail. He's told where a freighter called the Ace of Skulls will be at a particular point in time and he's asked to steal from it a chest of smuggled gems. However, when he holes its aerium tanks, the entire ship explodes and everyone on board instantly dies. Suddenly there's a price on his head and he's being chased by the best, including the Century Knights, the most elite of the men and women in the Archduke of Vardia's service.
Of course, not everything is as it seems and Frey, as small-time as he is, is bright enough to realise it and he digs hard and fast to find out what it might be. Once he knows, he and his crew have to battle to stay alive and to clear their names. That quest takes them across the continent and through enough intrigue, action and adventure to make any pulp fan grin.
The other reason that Frey can grow as a character is because he's not the only one who matters. Just as he's been flying under the radar of the applicable authorities, so has every other member of the band of misfits who work for him on the Ketty Jay. Every one of them is hiding something and every one of them is running from someone or something. Sure, they all find themselves in the same mess as their captain, but that mess merely forces them into situations where they have to come to terms with their particular problems and move forward. Before you know it and for the very first time, the Ketty Jay doesn't merely have a bunch of people working on it, it has a cohesive crew.
I won't spoil their secrets because they're all worth discovering, but they're a suitably diverse bunch. The most obvious misfit is Silo, the engineer, because he's a Murthian, a member of a race who were enslaved and set to fight the Vardians by their Samarlan masters in a devastating war. He's fiercely loyal but he doesn't say much of anything. He seems more capable than the rest. Malvery, the ship's disgraced doctor, is drinking himself to death. The two outfliers are Pinn and Harkins; the former has few brains and no fear, while the latter is a wreck of a pilot who's scared of everything except when he's flying his beloved Firecrow.
There are two other crew members of note (or three, depending on how you count), none of whom are in the crew as the book begins. One is Crake, a nobleman on the run, who starts out as a passenger; he soon becomes invaluable, not least because he's a daemonist with an armoured golem called Bess in tow. The other is a new navigator by the name of Jez, a pale young lady who gets shot before she even sets foot on the ship but who carries on regardless and heals rather too quickly. She's very capable and could easily be seen as another trigger for the rest to improve.
Arrayed against them are similarly characterful folk, with some of whom Frey has history. The greatest problem I had with the book was how well-connected this small-time nobody happened to be. Another minor complaint is that the technology feels anomalous to the history. Vardia is a feudal continent with towns still waiting for the arrival of electric power. Sometimes it feels rather like 19th century Europe, sometimes earlier. However, the myriad airships flown by Frey and his peers feel more like spaceships, even if they never leave the atmosphere; they're powered by prothane and lifted by aerium. That's fine, really, because this isn't our world, but it seems a little off for a while until we get used to it.
Other than that, I revelled in so many different details and I don't just mean minor components like the flavourful names, of people and places both. One positive note for me was the omission of a map, an odd thought but one I can back up. Too many fantasy novels define themselves before we ever set foot in the first chapter, all by showing us their world and its boundaries in map form. This one doesn't do that and it allows Wooding to expand it at his leisure, often as his characters learn about places they've never visited before. It has the effect of getting us into their skins quicker because we learn as they do.
Another is the mix of science and religion. The Awakeners are the dominant religious force in Vardia and they peddle what sounds like pseudo-scientific fraud. While the Archduke himself is trying to lessen their sway on the populace, they still hold tremendous influence. However, daemonists like Crake, who use the power of science to trap daemons and harness them in intriguing ways, such as powering clever gadgetry, are seen as beyond the pale, even to be suppressed. I'd dig deeper into both, but spoilers would abound.
It's easy to dive into this and surface 450 pages later, breathless but invigorated by a magnificent ride. If the crew of the Serenity worked on a planet created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, focused by Rafael Sabatini and written by Robert E. Howard, it would read rather like this. I'm writing this review only a day after finishing this novel, but I'm already 250 pages into its first sequel, 'The Black Lung Captain'. That leaves me with two more books to find: 'The Iron Jackal' and 'The Ace of Skulls'. Wooding sees the series as done as of that title, as he doesn't like series that overstay their welcome. I have a feeling that I'd like this one to run forever, but I'll settle for four more than none. ~~ Hal C F Astell