Author: Chris Wooding

2009, Spectra

Filed under: Sci-Fi

Ever since the show Firefly was canceled in 2002, that particular brand of fun-loving space opera has been an underrepresented subgenre, both on-screen and in print. That’s a shame because it’s such a simple, satisfying formula: you have a collection of disgraced citizens or small-time brigands, brought together by their common ostracism from proper society, aboard a rattletrap (but stalwart) vessel with its own personality, and led by a charismatic, swashbuckling captain. Together they go on a series of zany, madcap adventures, and on the way they encounter a range of different planets and people, each bizarre but loveable.

Retribution Falls, the first installment in Wooding’s new Ketty Jay series, comes straight out of that fun-loving space opera mold, in fact it hews so closely to the Firefly model that it’d be faster to list the differences between them than the similarities.

With this novel, you’ll get exactly what you expect: dashing adventure, exuberant thrills, and a fun read. You won’t get anything else, like originality or complexity.

The Ketty Jay, the ship at the center of this series, is not a spaceship (difference 1 from Firefly). It’s merely an airship, stationed on some far-flung planet more or less like Earth. Ships such as the Ketty Jay fly on aerium, which their engines turn into an “ultralight gas,” and which has caused at least two major world wars. (Wooding fills in just enough of the background details to make the world feel real, and he leaves himself enough room to pull backstories or complications as needed.)

The Ketty Jay’s captain is Darian Frey, a “freebooter” halfway between a pirate and a mercenary. Rounding out his crew: a disgraced doctor, two demented pilots, a “daemonist” who can create magic items, a navigator who evidently can’t be killed, an escaped slave, and an animate suit of armor. They’re all rapscallions, and they’re all on the run from … (cue dramatic music) …  their pasts.

As characters, these crewpeople have shiny, attractive surfaces and little depth. They experience emotions in broad, easily recognizable strokes and they have grand epiphanies that change their lives. There’s not much complexity here, but the tradeoff is that there’s a whole lot of fun to be had, in the grimy bars the crew frequents, the noble galas they crash, the gunfights they have, the cool gear they have, and, basically, the adventure of it all.

So what’s the difference between Wooding’s successful fun-loving space opera and a failed attempt like The Sheriff of Yrnameer? It’s not originality, because Wooding doesn’t have any more than did Rubens, Yrnameer’s author. (Relabeling magic “daemonism” and confining a space opera to a single planet doesn’t count as originality.) What Wooding does have is a talent for plotting without cheating, and story instinct that points toward drama.

Yrnameer was founded on a faulty premise: the engine of plot was a delivery that needed to be made, which is not difficult in a spaceship. That meant Rubens had to create thin troubles for the characters to wheedle their way out of, and most of the time they were saved by fate or luck or forces outside their control.

Wooding, on the other hand, starts his book with a true predicament, and makes his characters’ actions the key to their survival. In Retribution’s opening act, Frey gets a tip that a large, poorly defended freighter secretly carries a vast fortune. He ambushes the ship, but when he shoots its aerium tanks—which should result in the freighter slowly descending for easy robbery—the thing explodes.

Immediately, Frey and his crew are embroiled in betrayal and intrigue: they were set up, obviously, but by who? Who’s behind the tipster and what’s the bigger picture? And how will the crew of the Ketty Jay clear their name? It’s that kind of adventuresome mystery that drives Retribution Falls, and it’s exactly the kind of premise that makes for a compelling, entertaining read.

Wooding diverges from the Firefly formula in two last key ways. First, Frey does not have a heart of gold, in fact few of the crew members like or trust each other at the beginning of this book. This felt distancing at first, but that initial antagonism gives them a lot of room to grow and puts some interpersonal drama at the heart of this first book.

Second, there’s actual violence, and people die. Lots of people die. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword: it makes you believe that one of the heroes could really get hurt or killed, but it also lowers the shock value of guns being drawn. When there are gunfights every 25 pages, bullets whizzing by heads becomes a normal situation, instead of a tense moment.

Overall, Wooding is a craftsman, not an artist. This novel is satisfying but not at all enlightening. If you liked Firefly, or you like the idea of a band of (somewhat) good-hearted pirates taking on the powers that be, or you just need a good beach book, Retribution Falls fits the bill. And there’s another one coming out in July, so if you get hooked, it won’t be long until your next fix.

Similar reads: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, for an adventure that will actually make you think; The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway, for another fun sci-fi adventure (also deeper than Retribution); and Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, is still my favorite sci-fi book of all time.