Retribution Falls

This was recommended to me as a fun bit of fluff, “Firefly in airships.” So I didn’t approach it with the bar set high. Even so, I apparently expect more from my fluff because I was disappointed. Reading it I spent most of my time wondering why it kept missing the mark. What sets a good book apart? What makes the beloved motley crew of Serenity beloved and the pale imitations pale?

One bad habit is the awkward revelation of information in dialog. Yes, it would be nice if the reader learned things as the characters do but if there is no way to make this natural, the writer should just tell us, quickly and simply. Don’t set up a conversation just to have one character ask another to explain the political/religious/economic situation of their shared environment.

For the most part, the narrative flow is competent. Despite starting off at gunpoint, it is slow to get going. The real plot doesn’t kick in until page 50. A heist. A double-cross. Our motley crew caught up in machinations and plots, pawns in someone else’s game. Can they foil the plot, save their hides, and clear their names?

In Retribution Falls, the point-of-view refuses to settle. We get inside most of the crew’s heads but don’t stay with any of them long enough to build affection. The most interesting character is the passenger, Crake, a daemonist (someone who harnesses daemonic forces in a scientific way, as we might use electricity). Jez, the navigator, also has some interesting differences she is trying to keep from bubbling to the surface. Had the story been told entirely through either of their eyes, it would have been more interesting. Ostensibly, the ship’s captain, Frey, is the hero. This kind of story demands he be a lovable rogue, a bit crusty from his hard luck life.

A frat boy immaturity clings our band of misfits. They each have a distinctive twitch but they don’t have any depth. They whore, drink, and gamble in a gentle PG-rated way — and I’m thankful that Retribution Falls lacks any real ugliness. For the most part, it’s just flat. And then there’s the matter of our captain’s love life. Painful. Rather than making him admirable, his attitude made me root for the other team. Are we supposed to muster sympathy and feel his outrage when he says, “You murdered our baby!” to the woman who attempted suicide after he left her at the altar, pregnant with his child. Really?

Overall, I found the construction of the characters and environment lazy. The imagined world reminded me of the criticism that Richard Harter made of The Mote in God’s Eye: “Hack after hack has rewritten Roman and European history into galactic Empires, dark ages, etc. It has been all too much a matter of projecting the romanticism of the past into the future without any real consideration of plausibility.” Retribution Falls is Renaissance Fair with pirates in airships.

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