He'd been brave enough to look into the unknown ... he could do things that powerful men would marvel at. Shortly before they hanged him.
To return to the grey unknowing, the humdrum day-to-day, was unimaginable. He'd tasted grief and despair and the highest terror, he'd made the most terrible mistakes and he bore a shame that no man should have to bear, but he'd stared into the fires of forbidden knowledge, and though he might look away for a moment, his gaze would always be drawn back. (p.99-100)
Darian Frey is captain of the Ketty Jay, once a Navy aircraft and now a pirate vessel. (Arrr!) He is untrustworthy, darkly handsome, lazy, something of a womaniser, and utterly self-centred. Despite these traits, he's gathered together a rag-tag crew of misfits and criminals, all of whom are running from something, all of whom have a Dark Secret or two in their pasts. There is also a bad-tempered cat, named Slag: Slag probably has some Dark Secrets too, which may even justify his presence on board the Ketty Jay.
Frey and his crew are offered the opportunity of a lifetime: just take out a single freighter, the Ace of Skulls, and they'll all be rich beyond their wildest dreams, set for lives of luxury. Naturally they jump at the chance. Naturally, it doesn't play out quite as advertised.
On one level Retribution Falls is a pacy swashbuckling steampunk tale: plenty of brass and chrome, scientific(k) daemonology, dastardly plots, a secret pirate city (the eponymous Retribution Falls), elegant balls steeped in political intrigue, exhilirating air-battles, treachery, vengeance, et cetera. It's immense fun and full of provocative world-building: I want to know more about the Samarlans, about the unexplored continents, about the forgotten ancients whose civilisation was swallowed by the polar ice, about the physics of daemonology and just how you make a golem.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN.
This is, though, very much a boys' own adventure. There are a couple of strong, solid female characters, but they feel like fantasy women. Also, they are (in different ways) dead -- as is (in yet another way) the third female character who springs to mind. A fourth, Amalicia, has been confined to a convent (which is, from Frey's POV, full of 'sex-starved adolescent girls'). These women are strong enough to have survived what's been done to them: the men around them treat them as equals, more or less. (Perhaps 'less': why does nobody care about Jez's awful secret? Surely it's mysterious enough for them to be curious?) They have been victims of irrevocable damage, and yet that damage seems somehow trivialised.
The softer emotions don't get much of a look-in. The emotional arc of the story focusses on various characters' redemptions, and Frey's gradual assumption of the role (as opposed to mere title) of Captain. In the end, several people do the decent thing, and the stage is set for sequels -- which, yes, I'll probably read through sheer fascination with this piratical steampunk world.
Retribution Falls is well-written, eminently readable and great fun, and though I found it flawed this might've been because I was hoping for (even) more.