INT — STORE ROOM. ANGLE on a BULLET, over which a VOICE: “Just imagine. Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.” Our heroes (Darian FREY and Grayther CRAKE) have obviously been captured by a BAD GUY — who now puts that bullet into a REVOLVER, spins the cylinder, and puts the revolver to Crake’s head. Crake seems unsettled, indeed properly upset. He carries himself, we notice, in a manner at odds with his scruffy appearance, not to mention out of place in this room. Captain Frey is unmoved. The bad guy pulls the trigger. There is a loud CLICK from the gun, and quiet WHIMPERING from Crake. “You’d let him die”, the bad guy says, “rather than give up the Ketty Jay? That’s cold.” Frey shrugs. “He’s just a passenger.” In a WIDER ANGLE, as the bad guy paces the room, we can see some THUGS. Bargaining ensues — on Frey’s part, at least. Then, after a bit of clever trickery involving Crake’s GOLD TOOTH — there should be a CLOSE-UP here — our heroes get loose! A MELEE ensues, during which Frey acquires a SHOTGUN. Charging down a nearby CORRIDOR towards some shuttered WINDOWS, Frey leads with said gun, and then we’re EXT — ALLEY, with an OVERHEAD SHOT on the pair of them falling out of a shabby wooden building towards a COBBLED LANE. Crake lands awkwardly; Frey, of course, is poised. “I feel a sudden urge,” he says to Crake, “to be moving on. Open skies, new horizons, all of that.” Crake looks at him for a beat, perhaps listening to the SHOUTING in the background, probably thinking that this man was, in the very recent past, willing to let him get shot if it would save the ship. “I have the same feeling,” he says. They start running, and off their disappearing forms we SMASH CUT to —
MAIN TITLES: TALES OF THE KETTY JAY
And we’re off. This much — allowing for some elisions, and some obvious stylistic liberties in my version — is covered in the first chapter of Retribution Falls, and it very neatly sets the tone for what follows. Chapter two is a meet-the-crew, as Malvery, the ship’s surgeon, introduces Jez Kyte, a navigator and the new recruit, to pilots Artie Pinn and Jandrew Harkins, and the silent, ex-slave engineer, Silo — only to be interrupted by the return of Frey and Crake, and the firefight they bring with them. After the crew’s escape (aided by the ship’s golem, Bess), and a bit of scene-setting explanation — the Ketty Jay “looked as if she couldn’t decide if she was a light cargo hauler or a heavy fighter” (11); Frey’s crew mostly do black-market work, or “sort of anything, really, if the price is right” (12), largely because he won’t work for the ruling Coalition — our heroes are hired, in what looks like the opportunity of a lifetime, to steal a shipment of gems. But — wouldn’t you know it — the heist goes wrong, and pretty soon everyone and their mother (or at least Frey’s ex-fiancee, now a pirate captain) is after the Ketty Jay, leading to inventive set-pieces, well-judged reversals of fortune, some reasonably convincing character growth, and at least one thrilling sky battle. It is, in other words, a romp, and really a very well paced one: only in the final third, thanks to one too many backstory-revealing sidebars, are there any glitches in the pacing. For the rest of the time, the pages fly by.
So Retribution Falls is perhaps the smart solid action-adventure sf recently sought by Dan Hartland and Jonathan McCalmont, and for that reason welcome as a Clarke Award nominee, even if I wouldn’t give it the prize. It succeeds, in part, as the opening of this review should suggest, by following the narrative model that has come to dominate genre television. It is not at all a surprise to find that it inaugurates a series of books: the characters are established as ongoing entities, which means their arcs in this novel are rather limited things, interesting as much or more for where they will go next as what happens now; and its themes are broad, “universal” ones, the challenges of leadership and loyalty, not particularly inflected by the book’s sfness. Following a specific narrative model, indeed, that may seem overly familiar to fans of contemporary genre TV; which is a roundabout way of acknowledging that if there’s one thing people know about Retribution Falls, it’s that it’s a bit like Firefly.
It would undoubtedly be unfair to Chris Wooding to dismiss his book on such grounds, since not only has he (I gather) never seen the series, but there are important differences. The setting is probably the most obvious. As with Wooding’s rather good previous novel, The Fade (2007), Retribution Falls can be understood as fantasy or as science fiction, which means the furniture is rather different to Firefly’s many moons: in their stead we have one large continent on one planet, airships lifted by electromagnets that turn “refined aerium” into “ultralight gas”, and are powered by “prothane thrusters”; “daemonists” like Crake who can entice “little sparks of awareness” into artefacts (such as a mesmerising gold tooth, or the handily magic sword he gives Frey in payment for his passage); and a deity, the Allsoul, whose worship wiped out the “old religions”, and who is believed by its devotees to be a kind of “sentient, organic machine … they believe our planet is alive, and … vastly more intelligent than we can comprehend” (104). To get the sf reading you have to assume this is all post some kind of singularity, in other words, although Wooding is careful never to finally confirm or deny this reading, and thus avoids his tale degenerating into a frictionless pocket-universe escapade along the lines of Karl Schroeder’s Virga books, and preserves some joy and mystery in his setting. As much as Firefly, actually, I was put in mind of the techno-magical beauty of some of the Final Fantasy games. More than this, the most prominent character dynamic, that between Frey and Crake, is much more central than its Firefly equivalent (that between Mal Reynolds and Simon Tam), and really as much or more reminiscent of that between Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin. All the characters, indeed, are pretty familiar types, and none are unique to Firefly.
That said, the similarities are real. You might say, for instance, that this particular constellation of character types is strongly reminiscent of that found in Firefly, pace certain differences, such as the on-the-run noble (Simon/Crake) being more prominent, and the taciturn but intensely loyal friend (Zoe//Silo) less prominent. Or you might say that the situation within which these characters operate, as the crew of a small and very grey-market trading ship in the shadow of a large and resented central authority, is more than a little comparable. And you might suggest that the tone of the whole enterprise, the mix of humour and action and drama — battles punctuated by one-liners, and yet willing to take a moment to understand Crake’s shock at seeing death, for the first time, up close — could almost be a variation on a theme of Whedon. But for fairness, if you were going to go down that road, I think you’d have to point out that if Retribution Falls is read as echoing Firefly, it can’t be read as doing so uncritically: this is a version of the story in which Mal is genuinely a bastard, in which Simon is directly responsible for the terrible things done to River, and in which Kaylee is in the process of turning into a Reaver. Or, as a friend put it, it’s like Firefly, except everyone is a bit more dickish.
It’s also a version of the story in which women get a rather less good deal. Not only are Frey and Crake always the central duo — making for a rather bloke’s own adventure — the crew’s two women are, not entirely metaphorically, different kinds of dead, and as a result set distinctly apart from the menfolk. Each has the potential to become the centre of an enormously interesting tale, but in this novel you’d be hard-pressed to call either of them a success. Better done, if less interesting, are Amalicia Thade and Trinica Dracken, both of whom serve as romantic foils for Frey, and both of whom emphatically escape his expectations of their weaknesses. They do this in a feisty action-fantasy way, no doubt — the former by, for instance, kicking Frey in the head after he “rescues” her, the latter by showing absolutely no compunction about shooting her ex when the moment calls for it — but that’s the idiom of the whole novel, and arguably Wooding goes further than most in encouraging us to dislike his protagonist. Frey does, inevitably, start to Learn Better, but even then he’s not so much a charming rogue as an infuriating one. The extent to which he sees Amalicia and Trinica primarily as reflections of his own inner turmoil is foregrounded by the longing of Pinn to return home to his (alleged) sweetheart Lisinda; she is, in so many words, “the heroic conclusion to his quest”, and
… the promise of home comforts after his great adventure. But what if she wasn’t there when he returned? What if she was holding another man’s child? Even in the dim clouds of Pinn’s mind, the possibility must have made itself known, and made him uneasy. He’d never risk the dream by threatening it with reality. (84)
You don’t put that in a novel and then unknowingly recapitulate the same sort of self-centredness elsewhere; you put it in as a signpost. In this case it’s a signpost doing double-duty, not only foreshadowing Frey’s complete bafflement when confronted with an idea of Trinica that contradicts his existing conceptions — “his position was so fragile that it fell apart when exposed to the reality of an opposing view” (298); although the new position he constructs for himself is still steeped in denial — but also the men’s general disillusionment when they reach the legendary pirate hide-out of the title, only to find that it’s somewhat of a dump. “This place was better as a legend,” a clear-sighted Jez tells an upset Pinn. “The real thing doesn’t work” (280). It’s the closest thing Retribution Falls offers to a unifying argument, and as I’ve suggested, does undercut some of the book’s more cliche moments. In the end, of course, the Big Damn Heroes save the day. “They were happy,” we’re told, “and free, and the endless sky awaited them. It was enough.” But, you know, sometimes it is.