Chris Wooding

Tales of the Ketty Jay, book 1

Gollancz

ISBN: 9780575085152

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

I read about the first 150 pages of this 373-page novel properly. I mostly read about the next 100 or so, then skimmed the final 100-odd in case something interesting happened. It didn’t.

The setting is a world where dirigibles are kept up thanks to some element or compound called aerium and electricity is available but by no means universally accepted. The story seems to be entirely set within an enormous mountain range with lots of convenient valleys and hidey-holes for freebooters such as the main characters, with little suggestion of what else what might make up the world (they do visit an icy waste, but it wasn’t clear to me how this worked with the rest of the geography).

The story opens with Frey, captain of an airship and small-time/some-time pirate, being threatened by another lowlife, along with one of his crew. Frey is something of an idealist, in a weird sort of way; all he wants is to be able to captain his ship and fly where he wants. He doesn’t have the heart of a pirate, but takes on shady deals to keep skin and bone together. Also, the travel seems to be good for meeting women. The rest of his crew, whom we meet in the first few pages, have backgrounds in varying shades of grey; they are none of them keen to share their stories, and although the Ketty Jay is far from perfect, it’s a pretty good place to get away from the past, literally and metaphorically. There’s a crazy flyboy, a mysterious navigator, a drunk surgeon, a mysterious upper-crust passenger… as the crew showed their colours, I began to feel like they and the situation as a whole was oddly familiar. Then I realised that it was. They are the crew of the Serenity, from the short-lived TV show Firefly. But not as interesting, not as unique in their characterisation. The captain, Frey, was the most annoying and flat of the lot. I began to suspect that this was not the sort of story I was really going to enjoy when Frey was reminiscing about how close he had come to marriage in the past, and congratulated himself on escaping those dreadful bonds while fooling the woman into thinking he was going along with it, and still sleeping with the woman. With no irony or other commentary in the story about this being a poor way to treat her. This was accompanied by such protestations as the idea that women “forced [men] to lie to them” (p128) in talking of sex and marriage. If you are likely to find this, a seemingly throw-away commentary on the relationships between men and women, insulting, then this is not the book for you. It might be argued that this is a minor point, but Frey’s view on women as a whole – especially those he wants to sleep with – permeates the whole book, and besides it is insulting.

As if inspired a tad too much by FireflyRetribution Falls proceeds in an episodic fashion that was intensely irritating to read. There was connection and continuity between the various set-pieces, but each took place in a new location and the travelling there was generally treated with little interesting detail – there was simply An Arrival (thunk). Some of these individual set-pieces were well constructed, and gave some of the other members of the Ketty Jay depth and interest such that I began to care about them, Crake (the upper-crust passenger) in particular. He is a daemonist, meaning that somehow he manipulates daemons (which I think are like spirits) in order to do … things. It seems akin to enslaving them into objects so that those objects Do Things. He became interesting as he developed a rapport with various other crew members, and as his backstory was revealed. But he still wasn’t that intriguing.

Most of the set-pieces eventually contribute (some in roundabout ways) to the development of the conspiracy which ultimately drives the story. However, getting there took too long and I had already lost interest by the time the scope was revealed. It turns out to have ramifications for the entirety of the … area? (it’s ruled by an Archduke but I’m not sure whether it’s an archduchy or a country or what) – but so little time is spent establishing how big this area is, how many people care about its system of government, how many people are ruled by it, or anything else that might have been relevant that I just didn’t care.

Another aspect of the worldbuilding which lets the novel as a whole down is the religion of the Awakeners. The portrayal of religion in fantasy is a particular bug-bear of mine. It annoys me when a religion is either badly explained or not mysterious enough, and it really annoys me when a religion is whitewashed as stupid and/or evil without adequate reason. There is some discussion here of how the Awakeners began, but no indication of why or how they have risen to a place of prominence. Various characters are shown to be contemptuous of it, but without properly discussing issues such as atheism or agnosticism that would make such rejection of organised religion make sense. Instead, it feels like another aspect of this world that was poorly thought through.

Overall, I was very disappointed in this novel, and do not intend to read the sequels that I am sure are planned.