Retribution Falls: Everything I wanted from a tale about sky pirates

fantasy book reviews Chris Wooding Tales of the Ketty Jay 1. Retribution FallsRetribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Confession: I love pirates. Stories with pirates in them have captivated me for as long as I can remember (and I’ll blame my family for sitting me in front of such movies as Muppets Treasure Island and The Princess Bride) and continue to bring me great joy. With this in mind, you can imagine how excited I was when I found a pirate story by one of my favourite authors, Chris Wooding. Retribution Falls is everything I could have asked for from a swashbuckling tale: there are old foes, daring escapes, dirty jobs, betrayal, heartbreak, and breathtaking battles. Also, in a fashion I have grown to love, Wooding delivers a myriad of things that I didn’t ask for but absolutely wanted. If it wasn’t already apparent, I loved this story about flying pirates.

Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay if for no other reason than he owns it. He is everything a young smuggling captain should be: attractive, quick-witted, savvy, and a real ladies’ man. He is also painfully aware of every one of these things. In fact, Darian is painfully aware of most things in his life, including his station in the world of piracy. So when a job goes amiss and puts the crew in a tight financial spot it seems like a gift from the AllSoul when an acquaintance has a job that’s just too lucrative to pass up.

We meet the crew — ‘crew’ here is used loosely; they aren’t exactly a cohesive bunch — of the Ketty Jay shortly after they short change a business partner and attempt a handy escape. In the ensuing chaos we meet a familiar cast of characters: the devilishly clever and attractive captain, the jovial and portly ship doctor, the two differently crazy fighter pilots, a mysterious passenger with supernatural abilities, and their very new navigator who is, surprisingly, neither confused nor daunted by the prospect of joining the rabble. What makes this cast of characters really stand out is how they are so entirely not what they at first seem. Not a single one of them is ‘just’ anything, and you get the sense very quickly that there is much to explore in each of their pasts. This, for me, is a huge draw. I thoroughly enjoy how Wooding takes familiar ideas and makes them strange, or not at all what I at first thought.

The interconnectedness of Frey’s world is something I really loved to see unfold. One of the reasons I so thoroughly enjoy Wooding’s stories is because he almost always goes in directions I don’t see coming. I delight in the surprise of finding out about how past events influence the present of the characters, and how a totally innocuous brush early in a story can change everything. Retribution Falls not only brought me this kind of wonder, but also explored the limits of its characters. Sometimes shockingly, the characters in Retribution Falls go to lengths and push boundaries they didn’t know they could. Wooding deftly puts his characters in impossible situations and their reactions to adversity never disappoint.

Where Retribution Falls strays out of the 5 star range for me is in the setting. You get a vague understanding of the Ketty Jay’s layout which didn’t bother me overmuch; I would, however, have enjoyed a little more definition between sky ports. Nearly every time the Ketty Jay docks it is in a new place, yet these places almost entirely blend together. They are defined by the people in them and are very sparsely described if at all. For a world that was so culturally rich and complex I found it irksome that the physical settings were so much less dynamic. It was to the point that I had a bit of a hard time picturing how the world was laid out, where they were at any given time, or even how the flying ships land and are moored. I found myself imagining that the entire world the Ketty Jay flies around is covered in mountains to which small weathered bits of civilization cling, which could be true, but could also be fairly off-base.

However, I think this treatment of the setting does work in a couple of ways. First, it is the way the crew of the Ketty Jay sees nearly everything. The world around them, the wars that raged not long ago, are a hazy backdrop to their very immediate and very deadly lives. Secondly, you find out (fairly quickly in one case) that many of these people are actively running from something. Whether it might be their pasts or more tangible threats, the crew of the Ketty Jay has a little more in common than just being in the same boat: they’re all running. I’d like to think that part of that is blocking out the worlds they all once lived in in favour of the one so immediately in front of them. In these ways the somewhat lackluster treatment of setting makes sense, at least to me.

Overall, I really did enjoy the first installation of THE TALES OF THE KETTY JAY, Retribution Falls. It whisked me away on an adventure full of characters I wanted to explore, a culture I hungrily took in, and a world I only wish was a little more than just a faded backdrop. I plan to start into the second volume, Black Lung Captain, to see if the stellar characterization continues and in the hopes that we get a little more of an idea of how the world works.

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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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  1. sounds fun–think I’ll see how you like book two, but definitely intrigued

    • ‘Fun’ is absolutely the word for it! At the end of the day it is a story about flying pirates. I’ve never read book two before whereas this was a re-read of Retribution Falls for me, so I’m really looking forward to it.

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