Chris Wooding, I am disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong; it was fun. I read it at speed and to the detriment of my academic career. It was hard to put down, even though Gormenghast and The Silent Minaret were supposed to be on the agenda.
But I felt guilty while reading it. Guilty for enjoying the adventure at the cost of ignoring the gross sexism and racism in the text.
Come on, it was published in 2010. This stuff is inexcusable. The quote on the cover, ironically, says it all. “The kind of old fashioned adventure I didn’t think we were allowed to write any more” – Peter F. Hamilton. Well, ‘allowed’ kind of lets on that something dubious is afoot here.
Retribution Falls is a steampunk fantasy adventure about sky pirates. A lot of the internet is calling it a rip-off of Firefly. I haven’t watched Firefly, so I’m going to let that one slide. It was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award, which is a very big deal. The internet is also upset about that.
But I’m just going to look at this book in isolation. Spoilers.
Okay, so you have the merry crew of the Ketty Jay, a skyship propelled by aerium (default name for flying fuel). Nine of them. Seven males. Two females.
One of the females is a giant, enchanted suit of armour. I think we can discount her/it. At one point she is described as being much like a dog. Her name is Bess and she is a golem. Likes to smash things. Often used as a bulldozer and bullet shield. Can be put into stasis when not needed.
To be fair, I can knock one off the male tally. On account of the fact that he’s a cat. Still, Slag is arguably given more interiority than Bess.
So that leaves us with one woman and six men.
We have Darian Frey, Captain of the Ketty Jay and Jack Sparrow Reincarnate. (I’ll soften that a little; Frey is clearly an archetypical character and Pirates of the Caribbean is just as guilty of ripping off literary predecessors.) Then Grayther Crake, a daemonologist. Crake is a fallen-from-grace-noble with a Mysterious Past. Malvery, the drunken surgeon, also with a Mysterious Past. Artis Pimm, the stupid thug with absolutely no Mysterious Past because he is entirely one-dimensional. Jandrew Harkens, the shell-shocked war veteran also sans Mysterious Past and complexity. Silo, obligatory brown person who fixes machines. And Jezabeth Kyte, (strangely close to Jezebel) who goes by Jez and navigates. With Mysterious Past.
From the moment she is introduced, Jez is a problem. It is ground into the reader’s skull ad nauseum how tough she is. Whether Malvery is repeatedly hitting her on the back to emphasize her bro-ness (twice in four pages), Jez is techno-babbling, swearing arbitrarily or getting on with a fight straight after a gunshot wound; the reader must know they are dealing with a feisty female.
“She’s no shrinking violet.” “The girl’s gonna fit right in.” “She’s a tough little mite.” “You were right, she is tough.”
Dear Wooding. We get it already. She’s a bro.
And as such, she is not sexually appealing. At all. To any of the crew. But Frey’s first response and rejection of her is particularly baffling. For example, this particular section:
“Overly attractive women… were distracting and tended to substitute charm and flirtatiousness for doing any actual work. Besides, Frey would feel obliged to sleep with her.”
Much though the quote is confusing in isolation, it is scarcely less so in context. Let’s get over the all-pretty-women-are-useless-manipulative-gold-diggers part. I am confused by the use of the word ‘obliged’. Just… huh? According to Freyian (as in, of Captain Darian Frey) logic, if she was hot, wouldn’t he want to sleep with her? The sentence doesn’t make sense; maybe I’m missing something.
But anyway. Again, applying Freyian logic. The only instance of obligation towards him would occur if he permitted her to have sex with him, despite her lack of gorgeousity. Lucky girl, Jez. But like, that ain’t happening. You’re a seven, tops.
Jez is established as not ugly, just a little boyish. She proves herself to be very capable and once Wooding is done driving the I-don’t-need-no-man point home, she is actually fairly interesting and likeable. Up until the part where she has sex with a random because apparently that’s the only way of saving the rest of the crew. Sure, use your sexuality. Never mind the fact you are practically invincible and (spoiler) can’t die. As a female, this is the pinnacle of your ability to be useful.
To make matters worse, this arguably quite important scene is mentioned in passing by a character in a sort of “ta-dah!” moment and then never brought up again. I quote:
“‘She told us she’d made the acquaintance of a very important fellow called Air Marshal Barnery Vexford at a party at Scorchwood Heights. Apparently, she had to do some quite appalling things to him to secure an audience with the Archduke’s representatives at such short notice. He is quite a filthy old man…You do have an admirably loyal crew, Captain.’”
Oh. I waited for further insight into this situation, perhaps an exploration of how Jez felt about it…and nothing.
Ah well. Hard luck, token-female.
But it gets infinitely worse. Here comes the emotional crux of the novel, the central romance, the dramatic core.
Trinica Drake is Captain Frey’s ex. He jilted her on their wedding day in front of a thousand people (#yolo #sorrynotsorry). His reasoning behind this? She wanted to get married.
Bear with me. I know it may seem pretty obvious that someone would want to get married on their wedding day. But clearly it isn’t. Because Freyian logic. Trinica was getting too clingy and he felt like his manly right to roam free was at risk of being compromised.
This would be all very well, if the reader was then supposed to sympathize with Trinica and recognize this as a character flaw in Frey. Actually, that would be perfectly acceptable, at least in my opinion. However this is not the case. Frey’s fickle behaviour is not refuted at all. And Trinica is demonized.
Why? Because she “murdered” his baby.
Clearly some action had been going down priori wedding and Trinica was pregnant. When, humiliated and aggrieved, she tried to commit suicide after being abandoned, she succeeded in bringing on a miscarriage, but not in killing herself.
Frey insinuates that she did this deliberately, ie. she set out to murder her unborn child in order to spite him. And Trinica does not overtly deny it. Neither does the narrative. I find this problematic, chiefly because it makes everything about Frey, whose culpability is minimized. He is furious with her, forgetting his own role in this situation. He is the one who feels the greatest pain.
Firstly, Frey, you abandoned her in the most dramatic and painful manner possible. At that moment, you relinquished rights to call the foetus in any way yours. All you did was impregnate her, which I’m sure was plenty of fun. If you aren’t willing to be a father, to raise a child, you shouldn’t believe that misplaced sperm entitles you to lay any claims to the bundle of cells in her womb. Your crime was prompted by utter selfishness; her attempted suicide was prompted by grief. In short, hers was irrational, yours was a decision.
Secondly, when you left, you were aware that she was pregnant. Yet you left anyway. Therefore, shouldn’t it stand to reason that you weren’t too bothered about this baby in the first place? But whatevs. You needed a tragic backstory and you got one at the expense of Trinica’s complexity. And the reader’s rationality.
And (because the path to female character development is apparently unidirectional) after Frey leaves her, Trinica is raped repeatedly. She becomes the sex toy of other pirates. I personally despise the flippant treatment of violence against female bodies in this novel. But sadly, it is not as if Retribution Falls stands alone in using rape as a tool to add a little drama to further female character growth. In so many novels, rape is used as a lesson. This is the harshness of the world, you are helpless, behave better and cling to the (male) hero. Before rape occurs, women are naïve. It’s practically a literary initiation ceremony.
Instead of becoming a trauma victim, Trinica becomes an antagonist. Which, while potentially empowering, is unrealistic and sets a dangerous precedent. Because, in spite of her suffering, we are still expected to care about Frey more. Root for him. Wish ill on her.
And then, just in case you thought I was making all this up in a feminazi rant, there is this:
“He’d loved this woman once, back when she was sweet and pretty and perfect.” (italics added)
“The very site of her made him angry… how could she bury her beauty under this horrifying façade… How could she do that to him?” (italics added)
The second quote is from The Black Lung Captain, which is next in the series, but I thought I’d throw it in anyway. Notice a trend? Trinica’s failure to appeal to his standards of beauty (he thinks she looks like a whore), makes him angry. Once again, everything is about Frey. How dare she be unattractive? The male gaze is affronted!
At every encounter, he seems to experience this same reaction, comparing the powerful, dangerous woman in front of him to his memories of her when she was sweet and pliant. It’s interesting that these comparisons are frequently premised purely upon her appearance, before she even has the opportunity to speak. First and foremost, Frey’s reason for loving her was her physical beauty.
I suppose I’d better wrap this up. I didn’t even cover all the problems I had with the depiction of Silo, the strong-and-almost-entirely-silent black dude who takes a bullet for his master Captain. But to make the point, let me just say this. In a novel where everyone is referred to by their surnames, you want to know who goes by first names?
Without exception, all of the women. ALL OF THEM. And Silo.
And, I suppose, the cat.
For Feek’s sake.