Firefly Meets Pirates of the Caribbean

In The Hobbit, Tolkien’s observes that tales of inspiration are “soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling.” The same rings true for book reviews, I fear.

If a book is truly great, how does one give a recommendation equal to it? On the other hand, everyone loves a good tear down. Here’s your social proof: I have garnered a few dozens likes (combined) for the 49 five-star reviews I’ve left on Goodreads; meanwhile, my scathing review of Ready Player One has (of this writing) 140 likes and is the 20th-most-liked review among the 56,000 reviews of that book.

Such is my dilemma as I sit down to write my review for Retribution Falls, without doubt one of the most entertaining, rip-roaring reading experiences I’ve ever had. If you’re in the mood for a tear down, go elsewhere. I’m about to spend the next three minutes verbally felating Chris Wooding’s steampunk masterpiece.

Retribution Falls in the kind of old fashioned adventure I didn’t think we were allowed to write anymore.” — science fiction author/juggernaut Peter Hamilton

No one will mistake this book for a Pulitzer Prize winner (and thanks be for that), but Star Wars didn’t win the Oscar, either. Retribution Falls stands as a testament to the value of good old fashioned fun, elevated to another level by a storyteller that’s raising the bar for an entire genre.

Here’s the skinny: Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay, and leader of a small and highly dysfunctional band of layabouts. An inveterate womanizer and rogue, he and his gang make a living on the wrong side of the law, avoiding the heavily armed flying frigates of the Coalition Navy. With their trio of ragged fighter craft, they run contraband, rob airships, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. So a hot tip on a cargo freighter loaded with valuables seems like a great prospect for an easy heist and a fast buck. Until the heist goes wrong, and the freighter explodes.

Suddenly Frey isn’t just a nuisance anymore—he’s public enemy number one, with the Coalition Navy on his tail and contractors hired to take him down. But Frey knows something they don’t. That freighter was rigged to blow, and Frey has been framed to take the fall. If he wants to prove it, he’s going to have to catch the real culprit. He must face liars and lovers, dogfights and gunfights, Dukes and daemons. And it takes all his criminal talents to prove he’s not the criminal they think he is.

Equal parts Firefly and Pirates of the Caribbean—in style, if not in substance—Retribution Falls is the type of book I’m often searching for, but rarely find: something whip-smart and incredibly fun.

Wooding’s world is one of moral ambiguities, deeply flawed “heroes”, traitorous love affairs, and broken dreams. The motley crew of the Ketty Jay are, apart, destitute failures, and this includes their captain (almost by default), Frey. These loveable misfits are strikingly imperfect, at times almost difficult to root for. But in their faults lies … well, retribution.

The crew consists of a daemonologist, a drunk doctor, a seemingly undead enigma, a freed slave, a coward, a delusional young hotshot, a golem, and a man who can’t commit to any relationship whatsoever (be it professional, personal, or intimate). Wooding infuses this unlikely family with such wit and charm that, in spite of their shortcomings, it’s impossible not to find yourself swept up in this tale. Each crew member has a story to tell, tragedy to overcome, and personal journey to undertake. And every one of them is fascinating.

Wooding has written a genre-standard. With its steampunk setting, expertly drawn characters, and considerable depth, Retribution Falls is uncommonly multi-faceted. Top it off with pitch-perfect dialogue and a heavy dose of heart, and you have a story that begs to be re-read almost as soon as it’s been put down. The novel is not without flaws, but to illuminate them here would only muddle my point.

If you like adventure, read this book.

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