I’ve just finished Chris Wooding’s “Retribution Falls” and “The Black Lung Captain” and felt like a little light reviewing. Warning, some mild spoilers ahead.These are fairly classic steampunk pieces, but a cut above much of the dross out there in the current splurge of such matters. The set-up seems to me to be inspired by the Western-in-space Firefly. It’s not a serial-numbers filed off version of Firefly transposed to a steampunk world, but the parallels are fairly clear, right down to whether or not they can keep the (air, not space) ship fueled and in good enough repair to keep flying. The captain starts out as much less likable than Mal Reynolds but ends up in a similar sort of place emotionally by the end of the first book, and even more so by the end of the second. There’s an upper-class scientist reminiscent of Simon Tam and a woman with freaky talents (not his sister in this case). There are a bunch of savage and violent pseudo-humans who attack without warning and of whom everyone is terrified, and a mystery about where they came from (which is solved in the second book and tied in to the freaky woman’s tale). However, beyond the superficial starting-point similarities, Wooding has created his own world and characters, with a logic that mostly holds them together. The characters have depth, and can be both heroic and cowardly by turns depending on their background, current circumstances, mood and enemies, yet there is a consistency to the characters one too rarely finds. As with Firefly, these are characters I can believe in. To reverse the “eight deadly words”, I do care what happens to these people. I’m hoping he’s got more tales of the Ketty Jay to tell.

The only trouble I have with this kind of setup, just as with Firefly, is that there’s a fine line to be drawn between providing a chance of a big pay-off for the crew to get them involved in big adventures, but never letting them get it, which would upset the balance and the narrative tone of living on the edge. In the short-lived TV show of Firefly, Joss Whedon gives the ccrew a big pay-off one week then finds a convincing way to rob them of that wealth shortly after. So far, the crew of the Ketty Jay have never made it big – they’ve been robbed blind instead just after taking possession of the goods, but before they could make it anywhere they could make use of it. Can’t do that too often, though, or it drops into the reset-button trope.