Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding is a tale about Darian Frey, captain of the Ketty Jay and leader of a motley band of misfits and rogues. They survive - barely - on the proceeds from petty piracy and small-time crook jobs. But now Frey has been offered a plush job, an easy killing, and he can't resist taking the bait - even though it all seems too good to be true. Almost inevitably - given Frey's usual run of luck - the heist goes horribly wrong and Frey realises that he has been framed. On the run from contractors, pirates and the Coalition Navy, Frey has to try and discover who tried to put the crime on him and clear his name before he is taken down...
Retribution Falls is not without its issues, but the main emotion you have while reading it is pure, fist punching the air fun. Frey is a rogue in the classic sense of the word - a character you just can't help but root for, even though he is attempting to cheat and steal his way to a fortune. It is almost old-fashioned in the style of which it is written - motley band of adventurers trading insults and banter while trying to clear their names of murder. Barring the slightly sci-fi setting, this novel could fit neatly into the quest/adventure fantasy section alongside the likes of David Eddings.
Wooding writes at a breathless pace - in the most part. I have two issues with this. The first is that it leaves the world being barely fleshed out. We experience a whistle stop tour of various ports and areas within the land, but not a single one of them really stands out. I don't know if this was deliberate on Wooding's part, since I'm guessing to travellers constantly on the move most ports would blend together into one. The writing of these different locations definitely reflects the wandering life of the crew, but it does make for a breathless ride. A map might have helped, but I guess sci fi novels don't often call for maps!
The second issue with the breathless pace is that it is all the more noticeable when Wooding slows events down. In the latter part of the novel there are two occasions where I felt the pace was snail-like and it jarred me considering how events had transpired previously: these two situations were the conversation between Trinica and Frey, and the delving into the back story of Jez. In both cases, Wooding is writing about something that happened in the past, and it is done in a fairly clumsy manner.
Having said that, I really enjoyed this book. I know it has attracted comparisons to Joss Whedon's Firefly, and I can completely see why. The ensemble characters and the episodic adventures could be transferred with ease to a television show format.
I liked all of the characters, and enjoyed the ease with which they could be differentiated thanks to dialogue and mannerisms. I particularly appreciated the strong development of relationships across the course of the novel - by the end of the novel, the disparate group are very much a crew, and Wooding carefully and cleverly puts all the pieces into place to allow this to happen.
The writing is very effective, and could stand comparisons to such writers as Wilbur Smith in terms of the fact that this is very much an adventure story rather than a straight-up science fiction novel.
There are great flashes of humour, such as:
" 'You get the impression that this has all got a little out of control?' Jez screamed in Frey's ear.
Frey didn't hear what she said, so he nodded as if he agreed, and then replied, 'I think whoever's running this show, they've let things get a bit out of control!'
Jez, who also hadn't heard him, said, 'Definitely!' "
I also appreciated the warm heart to this novel and the honest writing of some very emotional scenes. In fact, I would be curious to see just how much of Frey's reaction to Trinica and how their story unfolded was semi-autobiographical - the feelings evoked were strong, and the words seemed almost personal, written with a true sense of knowing how it might feel to be so trapped by someone you loved so much.
All in all, I would definitely recommend Retribution Falls to anyone who wants a light-hearted read (with a couple of darker moments!) in the company of some truly memorable and vibrantly-written characters.
Arthur Clarke thoughts: So is this an Arthur Clarke award winner? Although my heart would like to say yes, my head is more sober and suggests no. In fact, I'm not completely sure why Retribution Falls found its way onto the short-list. The award is given for the 'best' science fiction novel published in the previous year. While Retribution Falls is a great read and a fun concept, there is little in the way of what I would deem true science in the novel. Sure, they fly in craft that are straight out of science fiction, but the aerial dog fights that take place could easily be about planes that exist right now. The presence of a daemonist in the tale puts it more into the realm of fantasy. Having now read three of the contenders for the award, I am slightly at a loss as to the reasons for this novel's inclusion. I would say this is the rank outsider.