Wednesday 24 August 2011

Review: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay, leader of a small and highly dysfunctional band of layabouts. An inveterate womaniser and rogue, he and his gang make a living on the wrong side of the law, avoiding the heavily armed flying frigates of the Coalition Navy. With their trio of ragged fighter craft, they run contraband, rob airships and generally make a nuisance of themselves. So a hot tip on a cargo freighter loaded with valuables seems like a great prospect for an easy heist and a fast buck. Until the heist goes wrong, and the freighter explodes. Suddenly Frey isn't just a nuisance anymore - he's public enemy number one, with the Coalition Navy on his tail and contractors hired to take him down. But Frey knows something they don't. That freighter was rigged to blow, and Frey has been framed to take the fall. If he wants to prove it, he's going to have to catch the real culprit. He must face liars and lovers, dogfights and gunfights, Dukes and daemons. It's going to take all his criminal talents to prove he's not the criminal they think he is . . .

Back in July I went to a blogger event held by Orion to promote their new YA imprint, Indigo. At this event we were informed that Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding was going to be reissued under the Indigo banner in January 2012, and this reminded me that I had a copy of the Gollancz edition sitting patiently on one of my shelves waiting to be read. At that moment I promised myself that no matter how big my To Be Read pile was I would read it over the school summer holidays. I bought it some time ago after having read the publisher's blurb on Amazon, and several glowing reviews that suggested it might appeal to my somewhat simple tastes in stories: lots of action, swashbuckling adventure, sky pirates, and so on.

Why it has sat there so long unread I do not know, especially as Chris Wooding wrote the totally brilliant The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. Perhaps it is down to the F-word that it has been categorised under. yes, I am talking about Fantasy. You may have seen me say in the past that I am not a fan of fantasy novels for adults; some that I have tried in the dim and distant past seemed overlong, far too wordy, and worst of all, they took themselves far too seriously. And so this is a genre that has tended to get overlooked when I have chosen books in the past, for fear that I would pick up a dull, tedious tome rather than a glittering gem. Fortunately, Retribution Falls is one of the latter and I loved it form the very first page.

The reason Indigo are re-releasing it as a YA book is that their research has suggested that it has already become popular with fantasy-loving teens, and I am not surprised. As I have mentioned before, my experience at school tends to suggest that confident reader boys quite often skip the whole Young Adult thing, expecting it to be aimed more at girls, and instead jump straight to adult books, be they by the likes of Andy McNab, Dan Brown, Stephen King and so on. In the case of fantasy, they often dabble with Terry Pratchett along the way, before moving onwards and upwards. Retribution Falls fits perfectly into that middle ground of is it a YA book or is it an adult book, and can be enjoyed equally by both in my opinion.

What I loved most about this book is that it never takes itself too seriously. There are no lengthy drawn-out passages about the flora and fauna of the world that Chris Wooding has created; nor do we have to sit through page after page explaining the political history of the world and its various factions; in fact, world building in this case is not a particularly strong point of the book and I was surprised to find myself wanting to find out a little more the setting of the story at times. However, I gather there is a sequel, and a third book due out soon, so I hope that Chris Wooding expands a little on some of his creations in these. However, if I am perfectly honest, if he doesn't my disappointment will probably be very short-lived as long as he delivers a similarly action-packed, fast-paced adventure story. Like I said before, I have simple tastes.

At the beginning of the story we are introduced to Captain Darian Frey, owner of the Ketty Jay, a rather ugly looking skyship, but it is the thing he loves most in the world. In fact, think Han Solo (minus Chewbacca) and his feelings for the Millennium Falcon and you have a pretty good picture. Except that Frey is much harder to like as he is so self-centred he would desert his crew in a moment if it was worth his while. The best way to describe his crew is as a mixed bag of stereotypes, characters we have seen or read about before, whether it be in science fiction, fantasy or even westerns, but despite this occasional feeling of "see it all before" these characters work very well together. I think this is because every one of them is carrying (and hiding) some pretty hefty baggage, some of which is so nasty that they fear telling others will lead to them being jettisoned from the Ketty Jay at the next port, or something even worse. These secrets are gradually revealed throughout the story, and although some of them are pretty simple to guess there are enough elements in their histories to keep readers turning pages to find out more. There are so many cool characters in this book that to start naming them all would take forever; not only do they have cool names (e.g. Samandra Bree), but they have cool sounding 'jobs' (e.g. the Century Knights) and they fly around in cool sounding skyships (e.g. Delirium Trigger).

If, unlike me, you prefer your fantasy books to be deep and meaningful, with the world detailed down to the smallest of minutiae, then this isn't the book for you. However, if as a child you dreamt of being a pirate, or you idolised the roguish Han Solo because he was the bad boy that all the women wanted, or the idea of sword fights and massive sky battles between skyships (not space ships) makes you salivate, then this is a book you really should try. On the rear of the dustwrapper on the edition I have there is a quote from author Peter F. Hamilton which starts: 'Retribution Falls in the kind of old fashioned adventure I didn't think we were allowed to write anymore,' and I think this sums up the story perfectly. I think some people (the ones I said that take things too seriously) forget that reading for some is all about escapism and having fun, it is not always about exploring the depths of one's emotions, or expanding one's knowledge. I am happy to admit that I have never read a Booker Prize winner, and I doubt that will change in a hurry as I would much rather read books like Retribution Falls and now need to get my hands on a copy of the sequel, The Black Lung Captain; I think we have a copy in the school library.

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