This series is a steampunk mash-up that has been getting great reviews since it's first publication in 2009. For the uninitiated, the following is the Goodreads blurb for Retribution Falls:
Because I've been terrible at posting lately and because we had some family emergencies last week, involving me calling 911 for my 19-month-old who was having febrile seizures, I neglected to post the following excerpt.Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. Crake is a daemonist in hiding, traveling with an armored golem and burdened by guilt. Jez is the new navigator, desperate to keep her secret from the rest of the crew. Malvery is a disgraced doctor, drinking himself to death. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man.
But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That’s if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky.
Tales of the Ketty Jay:
1) Retribution Falls
2) The Black Lung Captain
3) The Iron Jackal
4) The Ace of Skulls (Available in the UK)
From The Iron Jackal:
Sightseeing – The Duchess and the Daisy-Chain – Ghosts at Her Shoulder – Floodlights – A Deception
The Ketty Jay groaned and shrieked as she lifted off her struts and began to rise above the landing pad. She was a solid, brutish thing with a humped back, short, downswept wings and a stumpy tail end: a hybrid cargo hauler and combat craft, built tough at the expense of beauty. With her belly lights shining, she ascended into the sultry night, her ballast tanks filling with ultralight aerium gas.
Crake watched from the cockpit as the landing pad fell away beneath them. The aircraft on the ground were all Vard or Yort in design: this was a pad reserved for foreigners. Samarlan Navy craft glided through the sky, blade-sleek predators underlit by the city glow.
Let’s hope we don’t have to tangle with any of them tonight, he thought.
Jez was in the pilot’s seat. The Cap’n sat at the navigator’s station, bruised and battered and looking generally dejected. Crake knew how much he hated letting anyone else fly his beloved aircraft.
It had been a few days since Frey’s introduction to Ashua’s boot, but his face had healed up quickly, although it was still a little lumpy and faintly discoloured. According to Malvery, the rest of him hadn’t done so well. His back and ribs were a mass of yellow and purple from the fall he took. He winced whenever he moved.
Harkins hung by the door, pilot’s cap scrunched up in nervous hands, his hangdog face animated by some internal distress. No doubt he was feeling lost without his Firecrow. The two fighter craft that normally travelled with the Ketty Jay had been left on the landing pad tonight.
Pinn and Harkins had taken some persuading to leave their craft in Shasiith. Pinn entertained the strange belief that he could fly by instinct alone; Harkins was terrified of being separated from his aircraft. The Cap’n had finally convinced them both by making them walk around blindfold and counting how many things they bumped into. Then he reminded them what would happen if they did that at three hundred kloms an hour. They would be travelling over unfamiliar terrain without lights, on a moonless night, in near total darkness. The only member of their crew who could fly like that was Jez, due to her inhumanly sharp vision.
Ashua was here too, leaning against a bulkhead with her arms crossed, keeping an eye on things. Crake found the young woman distasteful. She had a surly arrogance that bothered him. Someone from such an obviously poor background shouldn’t carry themselves with that kind of aggressive confidence. It offended his sense of the order of things.
‘There’s… uh… there’s not many aircraft about, are there?’ Harkins ventured.
The question was addressed to Jez. He must have been plucking up his courage for several minutes before he dared speak to her. Crake felt rather sorry for Harkins. It was hard to watch him trying to get her attention. Everyone on board knew that he was sweet on Jez, except, apparently, Jez herself.
‘There’s not much aerium around since the embargo,’ Jez replied, to Harkins’ evident delight. ‘What there is is reserved for the Navy. Everyone else uses road or rail.’
‘That’s the whole reason they opened the Free Trade Zone in the first place,’ Ashua said. ‘To make it easy to smuggle aerium in from Vardia.’ She eyed the Navy craft in the distance. ‘But once you get outside the Zone, they’ll take you down hard.’
‘Unless they don’t see us,’ said Frey. ‘Which is pretty much the plan.’
‘Yeah,’ said Jez. ‘We really don’t want to be messing with the Sammie Navy if we can help it.’
Crake walked over to stand behind Jez, in the pilot’s seat, as the Ketty Jay ascended and the city spread out beneath them. This was what he’d come to the cockpit to see. Darkness had swallowed the faraway mountains, the plains of yellow grass and the distant herds of unfamiliar animals that he remembered from the day they arrived. Shasiith was a cauldron of light below them, its muddled streets like shining veins. Sun-scorched domes and parapets cooled in the night, darkening to shadow as they rose. Buildings of breathtaking scale and complexity crowded together along the black line of the river. Dozens of bridges spanned the flow. There were buildings on the bridges with lights in their windows, a necklace of dirty stars reaching from one bank to another.
‘Isn’t that something?’ he said, a smile touching the corner of his lips.
Jez murmured in agreement. He knew she’d get it. She was the only other member of the crew who had any appreciation for art and culture. While the rest had been propping up bars and fleecing the locals in gambling dens, Jez and Crake had been taking in the sights, visiting monuments, tasting delicacies and generally soaking in the atmosphere of Samarla. Jez was a guarded and closed-off sort, but she understood beauty and wonder.
Once he’d drunk in enough of the view, Crake headed out of the cockpit and into the passage that ran along the spine of the Ketty Jay. After a short way, a ladder ran up one side of the passage to a seat in the autocannon cupola on the Ketty Jay’s back. He stopped to look up, saw the bottom of Malvery’s boots, and heard a glugging sound.
‘Settled in already, Doc?’
Malvery’s grinning face appeared, looking down between his legs. ‘Cap’n wants me on the watch for any Sammies once we’re out of the Free Trade Zone,’ he said. He brandished a bottle of grog. ‘Reckoned I might as well bring a friend, make a night of it.’
‘Got a fine view of the Ketty Jay’s arse end. I’d invite you up for a drink, but it’s pretty cosy in here.’
‘That’s alright. I’m going to see Bess.’
‘Give her my regards.’
His quarters were half a dozen metres down the corridor, behind a sliding metal door that squealed on its rollers as he pulled it aside. The room beyond was cramped and bare, comprising a pair of small bunk-beds, a basin, a chest and a cupboard. It was as clean and tidy as he could make it, but it was still little more than a metal box to sleep in. Since he had these quarters to himself, he’d laid a board across the upper bunk and used it as a bookshelf and luggage rack. He picked a heavy, leather-bound book from the row of several dozen, tucked it under his arm, and went down into the cargo hold.
The belly of the Ketty Jay was cavernous in comparison to the upper deck. He was making his way down the steps when he heard a growing roar, and felt the gentle and insistent push of the Ketty Jay’s thrusters. He held on to a railing and listened as the lashed-down cargo creaked and shifted in the gloom.
The Rattletraps were secured side-by-side in the centre of the hold. The name was a local Vardic word to describe a Samarlan vehicle that most foreigners found hard to pronounce. Crake thought it perfectly suitable to describe the three armoured sand-buggies that Ashua had rustled up. They were grimy contraptions that looked like they hailed from some distant and uncivilised frontier. They had large, dusty tyres and sat on thickly coiled springs for suspension. Two of them had rotary gatling guns mounted on top of their roll-cages.
He eyed them uncertainly. Ashua would be driving one. Jez had volunteered to drive another. There wasn’t much that Jez couldn’t drive or fly, when it came to it. Apparently, she’d had experience with similar vehicles while working for Professor Malstrom, back before she was caught by a Mane.
Silo would be taking the third Rattletrap. No one knew what he had experience in. His past was unknown to Crake, except that he’d rescued Frey from certain death after Frey had crash-landed in Samarla many years ago. Crake had always supposed there was a story to it but, as far as he knew, no one had asked and Silo wasn’t telling.
Crake, for his part, had always wondered where a Murthian slave learned to speak Vardic so well. He hardly ever spoke to anyone on the crew, so it seemed unlikely that he’d learned it on the Ketty Jay. Curiously, his phrasing and regional burr came from Draki, the southernmost duchy of Vardia, which bordered onto Samarla. Draki was traditionally regarded as a cultural and literal wasteland, populated by rural people from peasant stock who eked a living from the hard earth, half of it poisoned by the Blackendraft blowing in from the Hookhollow volcanoes to the west. How Silo could have learned Vardic from Draki folk was a mystery.
Well, whatever the truth, Silo was confident he could drive a Rattletrap better than anyone else here. And if Silo said so, then it was true.
He made his way to the back of the hold, where a small area was separated off by a wall of crates and a tarpaulin curtain. Beyond was his makeshift sanctum. It was disappointingly bare, little more than a private area for him to work because his own quarters were too cramped. There was a desk and a chalkboard, a cupboard full of apparatus and equipment and space for a small summoning circle, but that was all. Barely adequate for even a fledgeling daemonist.
For the past few months he’d been increasingly frustrated in his attempts to expand his knowledge of the Art. Frey had given him the space and let him do whatever he wanted – mostly because he didn’t understand what Crake was doing – but the simple fact was that he needed a proper sanctum and you couldn’t have one on board an aircraft. Anything fragile would eventually break when it was shaken about in flight. His delicately calibrated machines never stayed calibrated for long. The electricity supply wasn’t robust enough to risk calling up anything dangerous, since the resonator might fail and let it out. He would drain the Ketty Jay’s batteries if he used them while she was grounded, and he’d never dare attempt a summoning while they were in the air.
I need a place to work, he told himself. A home, with a sanctum. Or I’ll never get any better.
But that would mean stepping off the Ketty Jay for good. And there might still be bounty hunters looking for him. He’d seen neither hide nor hair of the Shacklemores for a long while now, but it was dangerous to assume they’d given up.
Bess, who was standing dormant in a shadowy corner, roused herself as he approached and came lumbering over. She was a golem of tarnished metal and chainmail, standing eight feet high and five broad. Her face – if indeed she had a face – was set low between enormous shoulders and hidden behind a circular grille. Only two twinkling stars were visible where her eyes might have been, twin glimmers in the abyss.
She hunkered down in front of Crake so he could give her an awkward hug, and bubbled happily in the depths of her chest cavity.
‘How are you tonight, Bess? Happy to see me?’
She rocked back and forth. Since she had no neck, it was the closest she got to a nod.
‘Good girl,’ he said, rubbing his hand over her hump. ‘Good girl.’
He found it was easiest to treat her like a pet, though he wasn’t exactly sure what she was. Was there still something in there of the eight-year-old she’d once been? Perhaps. But he’d come to terms with the death of his niece as best he could. He’d come to terms with his part in it, too, although that had been much harder. The remorse and regret would never truly end. This golem carried some memory of that beautiful child, but it wasn’t her inside that armoured suit. The real Bess was dead. What was left was an echo of her, an imprint.
But that was something.
‘Look what I brought you,’ he said, holding up the book. The title was printed on the red leather cover: Stories for Little Girls. Bess couldn’t read, but after a moment she recognised the book. She clapped her hands with a loud crash of metal, tottered backwards on her stumpy legs and plonked herself onto the ground.
Crake sat down cross-legged next to her. She loomed over his shoulder as he opened the book, craning in eagerly to see the colourful illustrations.
‘Which one shall we read tonight?’ he asked.
Bess made a quizzical noise: an eerie, otherworldly coo. She sensed a question, but she didn’t understand what he’d said. He was never quite sure how much she comprehended of speech. She seemed to have good days and bad days. Or perhaps she was just good at guessing his intentions rather than interpreting the actual words.
‘I’ll pick, shall I?’ he said, turning to one that he knew was her favourite.
She hunkered closer, her face-grille pressed close to the page. Maybe it was the pictures she enjoyed, or maybe she just liked to hear him talk, even if she didn’t know what he was saying. It didn’t matter. While she kept listening, he’d keep reading. He’d brought her into the world, and he had responsibilities. An honourable man had to live up to his responsibilities.
‘The Duchess and the Daisy-Chain,’ he announced, and he began.
The desert was a cold and empty place at night. Sand and stone, from horizon to horizon. Barren outcrops jutted out of the steel-grey dunes like rotten teeth. It was a new moon, only visible as a round absence in the swathes of stars overhead. Their frosty shine, coming from an impossible distance, was barely enough for human eyes to see by.
For Jez, piloting the Ketty Jay, it wasn’t a problem. The night was as clear to her as the day.
They were a long way outside the Free Trade Zone, deeply into illegal airspace. She flew with the lights out and thrusters running quiet. With only the sky as a background, the Ketty Jay was a speck hurtling through an infinity of black. Only her thrusters gave her away, their blazing glow alien to the chill dark. But there was nothing to be done about that, except hope that nobody was sharp enough to spot them.
Jez had dropped into a shallow trance as they flew. Her uncanny vision was something she didn’t have to think about, but it was only when she was in a trance that the full range of her Mane senses kicked in. Then she could sense the wind, calculate it, as if its turbulence was something visible and easy to predict. She was aware of Ashua’s heartbeat, fast and nervous, betraying her outwardly confident exterior. She could hear the workings of the aircraft, purring with health since it had been overhauled at Trinica’s expense. It had been a thank-you for saving the pirate captain from the Manes, the very creatures that had given Jez these gifts. They lurked on the edge of her consciousness these days, no longer calling to her as they used to, quiet presences like ghosts at her shoulder.
She was a half-Mane. Once that knowledge had tormented her, but now she was beginning to settle into the idea. She no longer feared the ones who had made her what she was.
Something tugged at the edge of her senses. A disturbance in the desert winds. She frowned, and tracked its source.
‘Malvery!’ she called through the doorway. ‘Five o’clock high! You see anything?’
The Ketty Jay was too bulky for the pilot to see behind the aircraft, which was why they often had a lookout in the cupola. After a few seconds, Malvery called back. ‘I see it. Sammie frigate. Bit of a way off.’
‘They coming towards us?’
Another pause. ‘Reckon so. Reckon they’re coming at quite a clip, as well.’
‘Might be we’re just going across their flight path,’ said Ashua from the shadows at the back of the cockpit. ‘They might not have seen us.’
‘Change course,’ said Frey quickly, from the navigator’s station. Jez did so, turning the Ketty Jay to a new heading that would force the Samarlans to correct if they wanted to intercept. Minutes ticked by, counted by restless tapping of Harkins’ boot as he tried to contain the explosive hysteria building up inside him. When she judged that enough time had passed, she called again.
Jez swore under her breath. ‘They’ve seen the thruster glow.’
‘At that distance?’ Frey said. ‘There’s no way they—’
He was interrupted by a flash and a deafening concussion.
The Ketty Jay rang like a struck bell and slewed to port, sending Ashua and Harkins sprawling to the floor and almost knocking Frey out of his seat. Jez wrestled with the flight stick and brought the Ketty Jay back to an even keel.
‘Pretty sure they have, Cap’n,’ she said.
‘They’re lobbing artillery at us, the rude sons-of-bitches!’ Malvery yelled, outraged. ‘And now they’re putting out fighters!’
A small frigate, then, if it was only carrying four fighters. But the odds were hopeless even so.
‘Better make ourselves scarce,’ said Jez. She hit the thrusters and the Ketty Jay roared as she surged forward.
‘Let me fly,’ said Frey anxiously, getting up from his seat. ‘I can—’
‘Greatest respect, Cap’n, but sit yourself down,’ she said with a casual firmness that stopped him in his tracks. ‘You’d be blind out there. And you can’t fly where I’m going.’
‘Where’s thaaaAAAA—’ Frey’s question turned to a yell as Jez dumped aerium from the tanks and pushed the Ketty Jay’s nose down, sending her into a steep plunge towards the ground.
‘Dropping to the deck, Cap’n,’ she said. ‘Let’s see if they dare follow us.’
‘Without lights?’ Ashua cried. ‘Are you insane? You can’t fly that low to the ground when you can’t see it.’
Jez spared a moment to look over her shoulder. ‘I’ve got good eyes,’ she said.
Powerful flood beams swung across the landscape as the approaching frigate and its fighters tried to get a light on them. Harkins let out an involuntary yelp as he saw how close they were to the rocky desert floor.
By going low to the ground, she forced the Samarlans to make a choice. They could either plunge down and match her altitude – a dangerous option in the dark – or they could make shallow dives while firing and then pull up. That meant they couldn’t get on the Ketty Jay’s tail, and made her much harder to hit.
‘Fighters coming in!’ called Malvery.
‘Deep or shallow?’ Jez called back.
‘The angle. Deep or… Never mind,’ she said. The cockpit was suddenly illuminated from outside as the beams found them. The fighters were rigged for night-flying, with banks of floodlights along their wings. She could estimate their angle of approach by the slant of the light as it shone past the Ketty Jay and cast her shadow on the ground. The fighters had chosen the lowest-risk strategy. Even with lights, flying close to the ground on a moonless night was too dangerous for their tastes. They didn’t have the advantages that Jez did.
She trimmed the aerium ballast and levelled out just above ground level, close enough to make Frey give a little squeak in the back of his throat. The desert floor rushed by beneath them. Jez banked hard and swung away from the light as she heard the rattle of machine guns from behind. Tracer fire flitted past the Ketty Jay, chewing up the earth below.
‘Malvery!’ shouted Frey. ‘What are you waiting for?’
‘Orders?’ Malvery suggested.
‘Well, consider yourself bloody ordered. Shoot them!’
‘Right-o,’ said the doctor, and opened up with the autocannon.
Another explosion pounded the Ketty Jay, but Jez had sensed the shell whipping through the air and pulled away just in time to avoid being swatted into the ground.
‘How in the name of rotting bastardy are they scoring on us at that range?’ Frey demanded.
‘Lucky shot,’ said Jez. ‘Next one’s going way wide.’
As if to illustrate her point, a bloom of fire lit up the night some distance to starboard. She kept up an evasive pattern. The fighters couldn’t draw a bead on her. She could tell when they were lining up on the Ketty Jay by the angle of their light beams, and then she would dodge. They swooped, missed, and looped back into the air to try again. They were slender, needle-nosed things, streamlined like flattened darts. Built to look good, like all Samarlan craft.
‘Can’t keep this up for ever, Cap’n. We need to lose them fast.’
Frey got out of his seat and peered through the windglass of the cockpit. The play of the fighter’s lights were showing glimpses of the terrain ahead. A colossal outcrop reared out of the ground a few kloms ahead.
Suddenly his face lit up. ‘There,’ he said, pointing.
‘I don’t get it.’
‘They’re following the glow from our prothane thrusters, right?’ he said. ‘Well, this aircraft doesn’t only run on prothane.’ She grinned as she caught on. ‘I’d buckle in if I were you, Cap’n.’
‘Harkins!’ Frey said. ‘Let the crew know. Batten down. It’s gonna be choppy.’
Harkins just stared at him, his face blank with fright.
‘Move it!’ Frey snapped. The shock broke Harkins’ paralysis, and he scampered out of the cockpit and up the corridor, calling the alarm. Frey threw himself into the navigator’s chair and secured the straps. Ashua slipped her arm through a gap in the bulkhead and braced herself.
The lights from the fighters behind them slipped and swung all around them. Tracer fire chased them through the night. The outcrop loomed ahead, blacking out the background as Jez took them on a course that would skim close to its flank. Another explosion tore through the air. The frigate was getting nearer, and its shelling would become more accurate as it did.
Frey was a bag of nerves by now. Jez could hear it in his heartbeat and smell it on his sweat. ‘Malvery!’ he yelled. ‘Will you get those fighters off our tail?’
‘If you think it’s so easy, come up here and do it yourself!’ Malvery yelled back. He fired another burst, a dull thump-thump-thump of artillery, then guffawed triumphantly. ‘There you go! Happy now?’
One of the Samarlan fighters went screaming overhead, close enough to make Jez duck in fright. It corkscrewed through the air, trailing flames from the stump of a wing, and smashed into the side of the outcrop in a smoky cough of fire.
‘Here we go,’ Jez shouted over the roar of the engine and the sound of distant machine guns. ‘Malvery, quit firing when I say!’
‘I just got bloody started!’ he cried indignantly.
Jez ignored him. ‘Everyone hang on to something! Malvery, now!’
The autocannon fell silent. The outcrop was to starboard now, mere metres off their wing-tip. She took it as close as she dared, knowing her pursuers wouldn’t match her. They pulled away, intending to catch her on the far side. But instead of flying past it, she banked hard to starboard, swinging around the back of the outcrop. The Ketty Jay’s thrusters screamed as she powered through the air. Her frame shook with the stress. Jez heard a string of bumps and crashes from the depths of the aircraft, as everything that wasn’t secured went sliding and clattering across the floor. Malvery began spluttering a string of frightened curses as the aircraft tipped to almost ninety degrees, bringing him face-to-face with the sides of the outcrop, only a dome of windglass between him and a thundering wall of rock.
And then the lights disappeared. The outcrop stood between the Ketty Jay and her pursuers, and for a few seconds they flew in utter darkness.
Jez did an emergency kill on the thrusters and boosted the aerium engines to maximum, pulling the Ketty Jay’s nose up as she did. The aerium engines hummed as electromagnets pulverised liquid aerium into gas, filling the ballast tanks, making the Ketty Jay lighter than air. Jez rode the momentum that they already had and took the Ketty Jay up into the night, her thrusters now dark, invisible against the background of the sky.
Nobody saw them go.
As the Ketty Jay became lighter, the air resistance slowed them down. Jez airbraked until they were stationary and then let them rise like a balloon, straight up into the atmosphere. The frigate glided past like a shark to starboard, dwindling beneath them, its floods trained on the outcrop where its quarry had disappeared. The fighters swooped and banked, searching for the telltale glow of thrusters. But they were all looking in the wrong place.
When they’d gone high enough, Jez vented aerium to equalise the weight and the Ketty Jay stopped rising. The Samarlans were still looking fruitlessly for them, a klom below. Jez slumped back in her seat, then turned around and grinned.
‘That was a good idea, Cap’n.’
‘I’m impressed, anyway,’ said Ashua, rubbing her arm where it had been bruised by the bulkhead.
Frey unbuckled himself, rolling his shoulder, and reached over to give Jez a pat on the shoulder. ‘Don’t know what I’d do without you.’
Jez retied her ponytail to disguise the flush of pleasure she felt at that. Sometimes, she decided, being half-daemon was not so bad at all.