A craft was nothing without a crew to run it and pilots to defend it. A craft was made up of people. The Ketty Jay was staffed with drunkards and drifters, all of them running from something, whether it be memories or enemies or the drudgery of a land-bound life; but since Yortland, they'd all been running in the same direction. United by that common purpose, they'd begun to turn into something resembling a crew. And Frey had begun to turn into something resembling a captain.
As of last night, I've read all six books on this year's Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; bathed in the glow of my bookish achievement, though, I've rather overlooked the fact that the announcement of the winner is on Wednesday evening, and I've only discussed three so far. Hmm. I wonder how much blogging I can fit in between marking essays and teaching classes tomorrow...? (Ahem.)
Onto book four, then, at a somewhat brisker pace. Chris Wooding's steampunk romp, Retribution Falls is, to cut a long story short, remarkably like the late-lamented Firefly, only with airships and a captain who is both more of a git and less smart than Mal. (Or, as a more impatient friend of mine put it...)
Wooding hits the ground running - as this blog post, er, hasn't - with a set-piece that Niall felt impelled to turn into a script page here. It's not difficult to see why; go read the chapter and see for yourself [link to a .doc file on author's site]. Our Heroes are being held at gunpoint by a Bad Guy: a smuggler clearly hit with the ugly-evil stick, being "squat and grizzled, hair and skin greasy with a sheen of sweat and grime, features squashed across a face that was broad and deeply lined", who can't resist "turn[ing] towards his audience" and asking his victims-to-be whether they think being shot in the head will hurt. Equally, Our Heroes - or rather, our captain, Darian Frey, whose "wolfishly handsome features", "unkempt black hair", and "lean frame beneath his long coat" mark him out as a loveable rogue as readily as does the "ready, wicked smile that usually lurked in the corner of his mouth" - cannot resist going for the quips:
"If you’re that curious, try it out on yourself," Frey suggested.
Macarde hit him in the gut, putting all of his considerable weight behind the punch. Frey doubled over with a grunt and almost went to his knees. He straightened with some effort until he was standing again.
"Good point," he wheezed. "Well made."
Although Wooding claims never to have seen Firefly, to a fan this feels very much like familiar ground: can't resist a wisecrack, prone to taking a punch or two. Got a(n air)ship he loves more than his own safety, too - the reason he's currently at gunpoint is that he won't give up the activation code for his beloved Ketty Jay. In due course, he and Grayther Crake - recent recruit to the dysfunctional petty criminal crew of the Ketty Jay, now somewhat put out by the way the whole gunpoint business demonstrated that Frey cares even less for his crew's safety - have made their well-timed escape. Just before chapter's end they pause, of course, for a spot of knowing banter:
Crake hit the ground awkwardly and went to his knees. Frey pulled him up. That familiar, wicked smile had appeared on his face again. A reminder of the man Crake had thought he knew.
"I feel a sudden urge to be moving on," Frey said, as he dusted Crake down. "Open skies, new horizons, all of that."
Crake looked up at the window they’d jumped from. The sounds of pursuit were growing louder. "I have the same feeling," he said, and they took to their heels.
He has a knack for the chapter-ending punchline, does Chris Wooding, and for much of its pagecount Retribution Falls is good solid entertainment - a snappy adventure, albeit with a touch more mangst than is strictly necessary, in a well-drawn world of smugglers' havens, gambling dens, uber-rich frontier barons, and the sort of celebrity law enforcement officers who arrive with their own personal wind machines just out of shot, all the better to make their coats go swoosh with. There's a fun magic system called daemonism (and it is magic, despite Crake's protest that "what I do is real. It's a science"), pitched somewhere between spiritualism and Tesla's wackier endeavours. The dialogue frequently raises a chuckle (even if it not-infrequently sounds a little, well, Firefly-ish). Harkins, the nervy, babbling pilot, trips over his own sentences and interjects with comments like:
"I liked the running away plan," said Harkins. "I mean, we've been doing pretty good so far with the running away. Maybe we should, you know, keep on doing it."
When Frey says "I wish, just once, someone would have the guts to take us on from the front so I could shoot 'em", the brand new recruit, Jez - who has been busy proving her calm competence at every turn - remarks, "Sounds like that wouldn't be a very wise tactic, Cap'n," she replied. "But we can hope."
It is, as I say, good fun, and when the plot kicks in - after Frey's greed gets the jump on his sense, and he accepts a too-good-to-be-true offer that turns out, astonishingly, to be a set-up - Wooding wisely stays on the side of adventure, opting for close shaves, haphazard undercover spying and (verbal) sniping matches with old flames over any serious politicking. The crew go on the run, or - as the passage quoted at the top of this post suggests - more on the run, out to clear their names and (more importantly) find out who screwed them over, so that they can screw them over right back. As is to be expected in such stories, the shared adversity smoothes over some of the rougher edges of the characters' relationships, taking them from
"This ain't no family, Crake," Malvery went on. "Every man is firmly and decidedly for himself. You're a smart feller; you knew the risks when you threw in your lot with us."
to the situation described in the header quote: all for one and one for all, or something quite close to it, with each crewmember getting his or her chance to make their mark and earn their place.
Whence my reservations, then, and the bad taste in my mouth? The first reason is a simple one: for a romp, Retribution Falls is a little longer than is strictly good for it (not unlike this post; how meta!), and the essential quality of a romp - speed - suffers accordingly. As the pace waned, somewhere around the fourth or fifth crewmembers' reveal of their Painful Dark Past, so did my interest (see 'meta', passim). My larger problem lies in the treatment of the female characters, all of whom (with the exception of one of the law enforcers, the impressive but sadly under-used Samandra Bree) exist only insofar as they relate to Frey, and all of whom (not even excepting Samandra) are to a greater or lesser degree undermined or outright degraded by Frey.
Looming the largest here is Trinica, Frey's sometime ex - like the overgrown boy he is, he left her at the altar, pregnant with their child - now transformed into "a dread queen of the skies", whose frankly rather cool makeover elicits snotty disapproval from Frey:
The sight of her was a jolt. She was lounging in the chair, small and slim, dressed head to toe in black: black boots, black coat, black gloves, black waistcoat. But from the buttoned collar of her black shirt upwards, everything changed. Her skin was powdered ghost-white. Her hair - so blonde it was almost albino - was cut short, sticking up in uneven tufts as if it had been butchered with a knife. Her lips were a red deep enough to be vulgar.
It's the "vulgar" part that signals it; yes, naughty jilted Trinica has made the grievous error of changing over the past ten years, rather than remaining innocent and pretty and girlish, the very model of proper femininity over whose (pretty, quiet) sadness he can feel suitably angsty and solipsistic. (One of the other characters, in a different context, helpfully provides a succinct description of this type of mindset: "'Regret's just a way to make you feel okay that you're not makin' amends.'") The attitude is revealed more strongly a little later:
Memories overwhelmed him. Searing love and bilious hate. The stranger before him as a mockery of the young woman he'd almost married. He'd kissed those lips, those whore-red lips that now smiled at him cruelly. He'd heard the softest words pass from them to him.
Trinica the "whore" is no longer "young" or "soft". Why? She tried (and failed) to kill herself after his desertion - what is life, after all, without Frey? (afraid you'll just have to imagine my eyerolling here) - and in the process suffered a miscarriage. Oh, it's all about Frey and his precious, precious manhood, callously trampled all over by a young woman's despair. Trinica then fled home and got raped multiple times aboard a dodgy airship before using her body to rise to her present level of Ruthless Bitch Captain - after all, what female character's history or motivation is complete without a spot of rape and use of her wiles? - while Frey passed the time being miffed about his abused sperm, or something. Trinica expounds on this, but the cluestick bounces right off Frey's self-obsessed head.
While Trinica is allowed a few pointed rebukes ("'Same old Darian. Picked on by the world. Nothing's ever your fault, is it?'"), she is also one of the main villains of the piece - for the sake of revenge, naturally, being a woman and thus unable to get over being dumped. She thus exists in the plot primarily to be repeatedly thwarted and then defeated, and while this reader may believe that Trinica has something of a point, the narrative ultimately seems to disagree; Frey stubbornly resists reaching all but the most shallow self-awareness, and Trinica crumbles from hard-as-nails to weeping victim who never got over him. But he doesn't kill her at the end! So that's okay!
Frey's current, neglected girlfriend, meanwhile, is of the 'You're so beautiful when you're angry' persuasion (further eyeroll), barely pausing between slapping him silly and sexing him silly, easy to manipulate because of her irrational girly feelings for him, absent for the rest of the story, and recalled at the end only to be compared with "a discarded trinket". But what really broke me, and cast serious doubt on the obvious defence of the book - that all this unpleasant treatment of women is simply an expression of what a git Frey is, oh how edgy - was a throwaway reference to Jez's part in the audacious final scheme by which the crew of the Ketty Jay win the day:
"Apparently, she had to do some quite appalling things to him to secure an audience with the Archduke's representatives at such short notice. He is quite a filthy old man." She patted him on the shoulder. "You do have an admirably loyal crew, Captain."
Frey could only imagine how loyal Jez had needed to be.
Smart, competent, interesting Jez - the one woman who had until then escaped the objectification and ridicule meted out to the other female characters - reduced to a sniggering, skeevy punchline? So the only adventure women get to have in this world - the only value, ultimately, that they have in this world - is sexualised humiliation. I am wearily unsurprised.