Found family sure can get on your nerves sometimes.
A rag tag team of misfits, found family, swashbuckling heists and shenanigans in airships in the sky---what’s not to like? Chris Wooding’s series of four rip-roaring yarns was a delightful discovery to me this spring, and I raced through them with sometimes open-mouthed, full-bellied laughter and delight as each new development further proved that Wooding is a master of pacing, plotting, characterization, and world-building.
The series starts with the origin story of what will become our found family. They aren’t family yet, though. They’re just crew, serving under Darien Frey, the captain of a cruddy little airship named the Ketty Jay. Frey specializes in small-time trade, smuggling, and the occasional act of petty piracy in the air above the country of Vardia. He'll rob an orphanage by preference because they're less likely to fight back (and still gets spanked, because he's not terribly good at piracy). He has no particular ties or loyalties to anyone, including his crew, and so when he hears of a possible heist that could set him up for life, he jumps on it, with no plans to share the full scope of the bounty with anyone but himself. In what will become something of a repeating theme in this whole series, the heist blows up in his face and in short order he is on the run from the whole strength of the Vardian government, wanted for a crime he had no idea he was doing, but which he undeniably is guilty of committing.
Things only get worse from there: Over the course of four books we have demon possessions, golems, secret pirate hide-outs, train heists, museum heists, vortices in the sky spewing demon dreadnoughts, mighty juggernauts protecting lost cities, races, prophecies, civil-religious war, heroic last stands, true love, and a very fierce cat. Wooding is a genius at constructing incredibly entertaining set-pieces that also serve to advance the plot in tightly paced progression, rather than feeling like side quests.
So far, so fun, but what makes this series sing is the wonderful characterization of Frey’s crew. Silo, Frey’s oldest companion, is a Murthian, one of a race of people who have been enslaved for centuries, and so for all the loyalty he might hold for Frey by virtue of their friendship, it is also enforced by circumstances: he cannot make it on his own, and so must stick by Frey’s side. His story and character arc as he works through his role on the ship and in the broader world is very satisfying, and one of the slower burns, taking three books to really kick off.
Crake, a demonist (i.e., a magic worker), is an aristocrat by birth, and would normally have nothing to do with such dirty, scruffy low-down rabble as the crew of the Ketty Jay, except that he is running from a terrible mistake, the result as much of sheer bad luck as hubris, and the people who pursue him will have their work cut out to punish him more than he punishes himself. Malvery, the ship’s doctor, also hides from a past error of his own, a result of same combination of hubris and bad luck that struck down Crake. (This combination is distressingly common on the Ketty Jay.) But rather than turning maudlin and self-hating, Malvery has an avuncular charm to him, which is a welcome relief from Crake's---to be honest, rather tiresome---broody suffering.
We also have Harkins and Pinn, who serve as pilots of maneuverable single-person fighter crafts that support the Ketty Jay during air battles. They are mostly comic relief, but not entirely. Their personalities carry a sharp-edged tinge of their own. Harkins, a veteran of the most recent war with Samarla, has become an ageing, permanent coward, terrified of everything---even the ship’s cat---comfortable nowhere but when flying. Pinn is young and incredibly stupid, a bully at heart, born too late to fight in the war that so wrecked Harkins, and perpetually looking for the opportunity to accrue wealth and fame in a world that he is far too dense to understand. Yet Harkins is more than just a jiggling jelly, and by the third and especially fourth books his character arc acquires a certain poignancy to it that is all the more touching for how much he has been the butt of the joke in the previous two volumes. And Pinn—well, he never gets any smarter, but he does have a talent for managing to be in the right place at the right time, protected by his own stupidity from fully experiencing the consequences of his mistakes.
This feels very male, doesn’t it? It’s extremely male, especially in the first two books, when the only female crew member is Jez, newly hired as the ship’s navigator. She also hides a secret trauma in her past, but whatever it is it seems to have left her cursed with awesome: she has preternatural acuity of sight and hearing, and heals quickly from injuries that would leave others dead. Further, as the daughter of an airship maker, she also has an encyclopedic knowledge of the ins and outs of all makes and models of airships. Indeed, for the first two books she suffers more than a little from token girl syndrome: she the only female character, and it seems that Wooding is afraid to give her any flaws. Combined with Frey’s perpetual scumbaggery with respect to women, the first book feels particularly bro-ey, and is the weakest of the series.
But the glory of this series is that it fixes its problems. Frey’s behavior with women is deplorable, but the narrative is aware of this. It is not presented as a good thing. The sections from Frey's perspective harp on about how he's super good-looking and has never had any difficulty attracting and seducing the ladies, but whenever we actually meet said ladies on the page they tend to do things like kick him in the face, steal his cargo, and double-cross him in deals, which he heartily deserves. A rival pirate captain, and a Vardian knight—both women—develop uneasy truces with the Ketty Jay as their respective goals occasionally align, which gives us lots of time with powerful women who are substantially more competent and good at their jobs than Frey and his crew. And in the third book a young street rat named Ashua joins the crew—as so many of the others did—more through necessity and self-interest than any particular loyalty or desire. She livens things up enormously, and develops quite a touching bond with Malvery.
And Jez’s story, as it unfolds, turns out to be substantially less awesome and more cursed than it feels at first, which fixes, to an extent her token girl problem. Her arc also ties into the broader escalating tensions between Vardia and Samarla, and also the growing conflict between the Vardian government and the dominant religion in the country, known as the Awakeners. These tensions implicate Silo, because of his status as a refugee from Samarla; and Crake, because the Awakeners, among their other tenets, like to hang demonists. They implicate Frey and Malvery and Hawkins, too, by virtue of their service during the last war between Vardia and Samarla; and they ensnare Pinn, who wanted so badly to fight in the last war, and is thrilled as tensions rise and the prospect of a new war that he can actually take part in looms. The political and social worldbuilding is as rich and well-constructed as the character arcs, and the developments of all the Ketty Jay’s misadventures, as they entwine personal goals of the crew with the fate of entire nations, is a masterclass in plot construction.
By the end of the series, the crew of the Ketty Jay are fully family. But they feel like a real family, in the worst as well as the best senses of the word. They did not choose each other, not really; they get on each other’s nerves; they betray each other and disappoint each other; they can be unspeakably cruel, leading others stalk off in a huff vowing never to return; they are tempted by other paths in life which might take them away from the Ketty Jay, and sometimes they need to just strike out on their own. It is a rare family that lives together, at home, forever, but that doesn’t make the bonds any less real.
• Swashbuckling heists
• Rich, chewy, well-developed characters and worldbuilding
• Terrific plotting and pacing
• A bit weak on representation, but improves
Nerd coefficient: 8, well worth your time and attention
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative
Wooding, Chris. Retribution Falls. [Gollancz 2009]
Wooding, Chris. The Black Lung Captain. [Gollancz 2010]
Wooding, Chris. The Iron Jackal. [Gollancz 2011]
Wooding, Chris. The Ace of Skulls. [Gollancz 2013]