BOOK REVIEW: The Tales of The Ketty Jay


Volume 1:  Retribution Falls (ISBN 978-0575085152)

Volume 2:  The Black Lung Captain (ISBN 978-0575085190)

That Chris Wooding’s latest books share so much in style and sensibility with Firefly is both a boon and a curse to reviewers.  If you want a basic idea of the type of adventures, sense of humour, character types, charm and general shenanigans within these pages then Joss Whedon’s cancelled cult sci-fi series serves as a fine example.  I will say here and now that I guarantee you will enjoy these books, but if you are a Browncoat you will just have to accept that certain similarities exist, then shove your preconceptions in a crate and bury it six feet deep.  For all their shared DNA you’ll find that Vardia and the ‘Verse are as different as chilli-beans and chimpanzees.


Darien Frey is the Captain of The Ketty Jay, a fine old rust-bucket that’s flown him through all kinds of scrapes in peace-time and war.  His crew consists of a drunkard, a coward, an idiot, a close-mouthed ex-slave, a daemonist and a sharp eyed new navvie – not forgetting the eight foot leather golem they’ve got asleep in the hold and Slag, the ship’s cat with a talent for torment.  Their mission is pretty basic: to get rich with the least possible effort.  To call them a disfuctional group would be to underplay it; to call them effective would be to lie, but each of them is running from something and a risky life of crime aboard the Ketty Jay beats the whole hell out of facing their problems alone.

The world is complex and utterly believable.  So much is sewn into the fabric of Retribution Falls and The Black Lung Captain in terms of locations, cultural diversity, political upheaval, and history (both character and societal) that juicy story-telling opportunities seem to jump out at you from almost every page.  This is not Earth, but neither does is it a space-faring planet.  This gives Wooding the freedom to develop a steampunk world without the baggage of Victorian cultural idealism.  The aviation technology is particularly fun, being effectively turbo-powered airships (beautifully rendered by Stephan Martiniere on the covers) which at once give us a sense of old-school adventures but with sleek manouvering thrown in for some really kick-arse aerial combat.  The Black Lung Captain contains some of the most audacious examples of this.  One chase in particular had me howling with laughter one minute and gasping with anxiety the next.  Into the mix we also get Daemonism, an art which has shades of both magic and science to it.  It’s played quite intruigingly and really helps lend the world its unique flavour.  What are the daemons?  Where do they come from and can they ever really be controlled?  All are questions which are gradually being answered and form a significant part of the backbone to the series, along with the state-sponsored religion which outlawed it and the various political intruiges bubbling over.  It’s all cracking stuff.

You will very quickly fall in love with the primary characters, and even the least superficially worthy will find a place in your heart by the end of the second volume.  There are dubious motives and questionable morality throughout these tales, but as with all the best characters it is their flaws and their failures (many) as much as their minor heroics and triumphs (few) which draw you in and make you care about them.  From the heights of civil defence to the depths of stealing from orphans you will absolutely revel in their misadventures and join in the clamour for more.

I am loath to go too much into plot, because half the fun of these books is trying to figure out what’s really going on behind the scenes.  Suffice it to say that simple jobs go horribly wrong, betrayals pile upon betrayals, conspiracies and plots abound and the small-fry crew has to pull together to hurdle some pretty huge obstacles if they’re ever going to get rich.  Or, you know, get out of it in one piece.

Of the two so far published, I would say The Black Lung Captain is the stronger story.  It holds greater focus, has a fantastic antagonist and develops the characters in subtler and more interesting ways.  The Tales are nominally stand-alone adventures, but certain elements will definitely pay off better if you read them in order – a prime example being the crackling relationship between Frey and the treacherous pirate bitch Trinica Dracken.

I have previously only read one book by the author: Smarties Award-winning novel The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray.  It was sterling work and far darker in tone than I would have expected – almost Lovecraftian at times.  He’s a damned good writer, and the first series he wrote for the adult market – The Braided Path – is high on my to-read list.

As far as Frey and the Ketty Jay go, this needs to be turned into a tv series or a movie franchise.  Seriously.  Failing that, I’ll gladly settle for volume after volume of high octane swashbuckling fun.  A third volume, The Iron Jackal is due out in the near future, with at least one more after that pre-ordered and promised by the publishers, Gollancz.  Keep ’em coming, I say.

Retribution Falls 4.5/5

The Black Lung Captain 5/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear Dion and friends bantering about books each month on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom, here on the Geek Syndicate Network.

You can also join in the conversation on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls and receive retweets from authors and podcast news @Scrollscast

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