Sunday, 11 April 2010

Retribution Falls

I used to think that holiday reading is a publishing market segment that is constituted almost entirely of non-readers. Books promoted as perfect for the beach and the sun tan oil are aimed at people who only read one book a year or those that only ever read shit. When I go on holiday, it's a chance to tackle something hefty, something challenging and new. I can do with the brainless stuff, when I'm semi-conscious on the DLR in the morning shambling my way to work like a Romero zombie, driven entirely by habit. At these times I want easy to understand plots, broad characters and logical sequences of action.

That's what I used to think. Then I had children.

Before I had children, days in the sun spent darting on guide book tours of temples and museums were punctuated by leisurely longueurs in cafes (street or beach-side) with a cool glass of the local lager and a plate of whatever strangely preserved morsel was the local nibble. Before I had children reading time was provided by long bus trips to remote attractions post-it noted in the guide book before we left. Before I had children, there always seemed to be time to snatch a few dozen pages, or even settle down and read a hundred at a stretch if there was nothing else to do.

Alas, those days are long passed. Today, every historical site or local attraction is a headache-inducing dredge through high school history and classics at a quarter century remove, in an attempt to answer questions that begin with “where are we?” and inevitably end somewhere like “is God real?”, “when was the first person in Europe?” and “what was there before moon appeared?” Today, every long journey requires a constant stream of patter, tricks and reassurances to get the children through without having them scream everybody's nerves into jelly.

Today's reading is restricted to the last withered hours of consciousness at the end of a day, when excited, excitable children have finally worn themselves out into sweaty somnolence, and towels and toys and piles of interesting shells and rocks and bits of wood have been cleared aside. On my most recent trip, two things helped me to get some solid reading done on my latest journey:

The first was the invention of the Nintendo DS, a boon to parents everywhere and a mind-numbing joy for children.

The second was Retribution Falls, a jolly adventure story from Chris Wooding that suited exactly the sun-struck and child-shocked days of spring holidays. It's an old fashioned story of blazing airship combat, hair-raising dogfights and a dash of criminal shennanigans. While the airships suggest steampunk, this novel is set in a secondary world fantasy realm, where steampunk engineering mixes with supernatural phenomena and daemonic magic. It's a kind of post-enlightenment heroic fantasy, where the old magic (and suggestions of forgotten and proscribed knowledge) sit side by side with a variation of ordinary science.

If you've ever played a computer adventure game called Arcanum, you'll have an idea of the sort of thing. In fact, and I mean this with utmost respect, this book reads a lot like the better sort of gaming fiction. The major skill gaming has taken from sf and fantasy is world building. I don't think it's a coincidence that mainstream heroic fantasy and pen and paper games evolved at the same time, and I think the fictional approach to world building cross-fertilised. More and more writers began creating worlds for stories to happen in rather stories around which worlds were created.

Retribution Falls has that intense level of granularity and detail. It is easy to believe in the world beyond the characters, that there's business and goings on off screen. Secondary characters all have a well thought out place in the world, they all come with a back story consistent with elements of established continuity, they all fit their little niche in a calculated milieu.

There are times when this maybe goes a little too far. Combined with the old fashioned story and broad characterisation, it sometimes feels a bit like flavour fiction in a gaming manual. This is perhaps because of the main cast's habit of over analysing things, and so piloting the Ketty Jay sometimes reads a little like a series of skill rolls, and Crake often seems to be totting up his magic points before he cooks up a little deamonism.

Under other circumstances I might have been more impatient with the straight forward plotting, and I can't help wishing that Wooding was a little harder hearted and killed off a character or two on the way through, just to show us he meant business. Maybe things are a little easy for the crew of the Ketty Jay, but even so they make good company for frazzled evenings semi-conscious on the sandy settee with a glass of the local poison to ease the sandblasted headache.

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