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Sunday, 4 December 2011

Review: The Iron Jackal by Chris Wooding (A Tale of the Ketty Jay)


Things are finally looking good for Captain Frey and his crew. The Ketty Jay has been fixed up good as new. They’ve got their first taste of fortune and fame. And, just for once, nobody is trying to kill them.

Even Trinica Dracken, Frey’s ex-fiancee and long-time nemesis, has given up her quest for revenge. In fact, she’s offered them a job – one that will take them deep into the desert heart of Samarla, the land of their ancient enemies. To a place where the secrets of the past lie in wait for the unwary. Secrets that might very well cost Frey everything.

Join the crew of the Ketty Jay on their greatest adventure yet: a story of mayhem and mischief, roof-top chases and death-defying races, murderous daemons, psychopathic golems and a particularly cranky cat. The first time was to clear his name. The second time was for money. 

This time, Frey’s in a race against the clock for the ultimate prize: to save his own life.

Firstly, apologies for my absence over the past month or so. I had to take a break from the Book Zone for family reasons, and then just as I was about to launch myself back into it my body finally decided to protest at the stress I had been under and decided to pack up on me. I have therefore spent the best part of the last five days in bed ill, not even feeling able to read for the first two. Nightmare! However, I am on the mend now, but have a huge pile of reviews to get written, and one of the busiest times of the year. Great!

I'm going to kick off with a review for a book I totally loved. Some time ago I posted a review of Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls, the first in his A Tale of the Ketty Jay series. Although written for the adult market and released through Orion's SFF imprint Gollancz, the publishers have noticed that it had been gaining a lot of interest from teen readers, and that first book is soon to be re-released under Orions YA imprint, Indigo. I really enjoyed Retribution Falls, and on finishing it I rushed out to buy the sequel, The Black Lung Captain, a book I felt was even better than its predecessor. Imagine then my delight when I received a copy of the third book, The Iron Jackal, from the ever-generous Jon Weir at Gollancz. I almost dropped everything to read it, but I had a few other reading commitments and so I decided to save it for when I was a little less busy so I could fully savour the story. 

Please believe me when I say that having read it, I  will definitely be dropping everything to read book four whenever it is released. Long time readers of the Book Zone will know that I do not read a great deal of SFF, and even less for the adult market, but this is one series that has fast become one of my favourites, and The Iron Jackal is by far the best in the series so far. The first two books were fun, but by necessity time was spent introducing the characters (in book one) and developing the world building (a weakness of book one, but much improved in book two). Now that these two essential elements are ticked off it is almost as if Chris Wooding has announced "And now let the real fun commence!".

I seem to remember reading a few reviews of Retribution Falls where the reviewer suggested that the characters were not very well developed. Chris Wooding has certainly answered  those critics in the subsequent two books. And the same goes for the world building. Quite often I had found adult SFF too hard going because the author has felt compelled to deliver fully three dimensional characters, including back story, or spend pages going over the minutiae of the world he has created, including lengthy passages about its history and politics. In this series Chris Wooding has chosen to do this over the series, and so in each new book we have found out a little bit more about the world, and more and more of the secrets that the crew of the Ketty Jay have been keeping secret have been revealed. Where Retribution Falls was all about Darian Frey, and the second book took a big focus on the development of Jez and Crake, this book sees us really get to know the mysterious and brooding Silo much better. 

The passages of the book that deal with fleshing out these characters also make the pacing of the story that bit more exquisite. Chris Wooding is now a master at writing action scenes that have you reaching to strap yourself in with that metaphorical seatbelt, and there are even more in The Iron Jackal than in his previous books, but the story would become boring if we didn't have these calmer, more introspective moments between them.

All of the books in this series have been fun, but as I suggested earlier this one really goes for it in the fun stakes. The banter between the various members of the crew, who over the course of the previous two books have developed a very special bond, is superbly written, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, and now that we know them so well we can start to predict (in a good way) how one might react to the actions or verbal snipes of another. The plot this time is also great fun, starting off with a daring heist which soon turns in to a traditional hunt for long-lost treasure. Of course, this wouldn't be a Ketty Jay story without that 'comedy of errors' undercurrent, where everything Frey does just seems to get him and his crew even further up the creek without a paddle.

As I said before, this is a series written for the adult market, but soon to be targeted at teens. There is therefore a small degree of bad language, but also a huge body count: the crew of the Ketty Jay seem to kill quite a few people along their way, although invariably in self-defence. Teen boys will totally love this, but unlike most of the books I feature on here it isn't suitable for younger readers.

I do not have any news as to when the fourth book will be published, but it is certainly one I will be carving over the next year. Chris Wooding ends The Iron Jackal perfectly, but he also raises a number of questions that still need answering, and the events in this book are suggesting that very soon the brown stuff could be hitting the fan in large quantities, not only for Frey and his crew but also for everyone else in Vardia and Samarla. I can't wait!

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