Tales of the Ketty Jay soars with retrofuturistic action

Chris Wooding is a 37-year-old British writer who has been publishing scifi/ fantasy novels for more than ten years. Early in his career, he won awards for his YA novels Poison (2003) and The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray (2001), but subsequently received critical acclaim for his fantasy trilogy for adults, The Braided Path. And then, in 2009 he started off a new series for adults, Tales of the Ketty Jay.

I’ve just finished reading the first book in the series, titled Retribution Falls and enjoyed it very much. I am all set for books 2, 3 and 4 – The Black Lung Captain (2010), The Iron Jackal (2011) and Ace of Skulls (2013). The series is categorized as steam-punk, but if I were to be a purist about it, I would say that none of the technology in the novels is steam-powered and therefore the closest description would be ‘dieselpunk set in a semi-pastoral world’.

The setting is an earth-like world with towns and villages reminiscent of 18th century Europe. However, this world is distinctive for its mid-20th century level flying technology. The flying craft are a combination of lighter-than-air blimps and propeller- or jet-powered airplanes. They are powered by aerium, a material which releases an ultralight gas to lift the craft and prothane, a powerful jet fuel used for propulsion. The ultralight gas allows the aircraft to be made very large – they can stay up in the air as long as there’s enough aerium in the tanks – with quarters for the crews, passenger rooms, cargo holds, gun emplacements, etc. In fact, they operate more like ships at sea; as a lover of both ships and aircraft, you can imagine how much this combination appealed to me! There is clearly a well-established aviation industry (much like our pre-50’s world) and a variety of aircraft models with wonderfully old-fashioned names like Caybery Firecrows, F-class Skylances, Norbury Equalisers, Windblades and Ludstrome Cloudhammers.

The books follow the adventures of a craft called the Ketty Jay, captained by a handsome rogue and womanizer named Darian Frey – think Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. Frey’s crew is a motley bunch, consisting of an alcoholic doctor, a cowardly fighter pilot, a taciturn giant, an aristocrat on the run and female navigator with a mysterious past, whose wounds heal miraculously and who doesn’t appear to sleep. There are elements of the supernatural: the aristocrat Grayther Crake is a demonist and is accompanied by Bess, a giant suit of armor and chainmail, which appears to have a spirit living inside of it. Frey and his crew earn their living by transporting cargo, but equally often they also smuggle contraband and rob airships; very reminiscent of the antiheroes of Joss Whedon’s Firefly TV series, or the Guardians of the Galaxy comics or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Over the course of the book, the backstories of the various characters are fleshed out and the bonds of friendship and camaraderie that keep them together get ever stronger. I also appreciated that there is a degree of character development, with each of them on their own personal journeys. There is plenty of action, adventure and intrigue, but equally some softer moments, possible romance and even some pathos. It all makes for a very good package and no small wonder then that the series if 4 books (and counting, hopefully!).

I am reminded of two other series that were similar in tone and setting – Kenneth Oppel’s YA Airborn trilogy and Scott Westerfeld’s YA Leviathan trilogy. The Ketty Jay books of course, are targeted at adults and therefore are darker and more violent.

I owe a debt of thanks to Goodreads.com for discovering these books. I find the Goodreads recommendation engine far superior to Amazon.com, especially when searching for Fantasy/ SF books.

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