Evidently the first book in a new series, Retribution Falls doesn't do anything particularly groundbreaking or startlingly original, but it is great good fun, chockfull of pirates, scoundrels, drinking bouts, sword and gun battles, breath-taking aeronautical feats, a demonically-possessed but loving suit of armor, broken engagements, and homicidal former fiancees. Despite what the press release says, it isn't quite Pirates of the Caribbean, but Johnny Depp would definitely be a good choice for the leading role as Darian Frey, the gallant, but not entirely competent captain of the airship Ketty Jay.
The novel is set in a world of approximately late-Victorian era technology, though some of that technology, as in Ian R. MacLeod's much more serious The Light Ages, appears to be magically powered. The wealthy have limited electric lights, though gas lighting is more common. The world is enormously mountainous and most travel is apparently accomplished by airship. These flying machines are buoyed up by something called aerium, which isn't simply hydrogen or helium by another name. It can be used to fly not only large airships (like the Ketty Jay) which are heavily built enough to withstand explosives and mount powerful machine guns, but also smaller, faster aircraft that function essentially as fighter planes. The world hasn't seen a king in many years—the last one evidently went mad and founded the current, repressive religious order called the Awakeners. But an Archduke keeps some order, aided by his colorful personal army, the Century Knights. The Archduke is also strongly opposed to the Awakeners, and these two power poles maintain an uneasy and sometimes fractious truce between them. A number of other civilizations are mentioned as existing in distant places, most of them hostile, some of them not, or not entirely human. One of the crew of the Ketty Jay, the ship's navigator, Jez, has had a brief encounter with perhaps the worst of these societies, the Manes, who come across as zombie/berzerkers on too much caffeine with the ability to either move very fast or teleport. Jez, who may now be dead (you'll have to read the book for an explanation), fears that she is slowly turning into a Mane. More information on her intriguing situation will no doubt be forthcoming in future volumes in the series.
At the center of the book, however, is Darian Frey, who moves back and forth between legal activities (hauling passengers and freight) and illegal ones (smuggling and a bit of piracy) pretty much based on whatever is available to keep body and airship together. Frey, who has left at least two very wealthy fiancees in the lurch (both of whom get a chance to terrorize him at various points in the novel), loves the Ketty Jay, hard liquor, and playing a variation on poker called Rake, and not much else. He's currently carrying one passenger, Grayther Crake, an aristocrat and daemonist, who is on the run from punishment for an unspeakable crime. Crake has paid Frey for his passage by giving him a magical sword that carries a trapped daemon and can fight pretty much on its own. Crake also has as a traveling companion, the aforementioned affectionate (if deadly) suit of possessed armor. The rest of the crew includes Malvery, an alcoholic doctor who's afraid to do surgery, but doesn't think twice about punching people in the face; Silo, an enigmatic and competent ship's engineer who is totally devoted to Frey; and Pinn and Harkins, who fly the Ketty Jay's two outrider fighter aircraft. Both pilots are idiots, the former a brave but fool-hearty womanizer, the latter a shell-shocked coward, except when he's in his cockpit.
The plot initially centers on Frey's being hired to attack another airship, supposedly to steal a chest of rare jewels. Unfortunately, as soon as the Ketty Jay fires on the other craft, planning to disable it, the ship explodes, killing dozens, including, Frey eventually learns, the highly popular son of the Archduke. Soon thereafter, Frey sees his face on a wanted poster and it quickly becomes clear that he's been set up. The jewels never existed and the aircraft he destroyed had been rigged to explode. Someone wanted the son and only heir of the Archduke dead for reasons that aren't really all that hard to figure out. A more immediate mystery, however, is why they specifically wanted to frame Frey, who's essentially a nobody, for the murder. Might one, or perhaps both of those rich and thoroughly jilted fiancees be involved? Frey and crew soon find themselves on the run, pursued by both the Century Knights and a fearsome bounty hunter named Trinica Dracken aboard her heavily armed warship the Delirium Trigger. Frey's only chance is discover who is behind the plot to kill the dead heir, a plot that will eventually lead him to the legendary pirate's lair, Retribution Falls.
Wooding is a good writer who knows how to set an exciting pace and produce riveting action sequences. His characters are well developed, especially for an adventure novel, and all of the important ones are given enough space for us to learn their often tragic (and occasionally comic) back stories. Frey is a competent enough hero, though we've seen his like many times before and both Crake and Jez are far more interesting characters. I look forward to seeing how these two will develop in the sequels. The individual places Wooding describes are nicely concrete, filled with visual, sometimes vaguely steampunkish detail, though his world as a whole still seems somewhat fragmented and vague. We will no doubt learn more about it in the future. What I also look forward to is finding out more about how magic works in this world. There are hints that everything magical centers on the capture of various demons—I was somewhat reminded of Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy—but the supernatural is generally understated and nothing is fleshed out as well as it might be. Hopefully this lack will also be redressed in the future. In itself, Retribution Falls is an exciting and enjoyable novel, and I look forward to the Ketty Jay's further adventures.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.