Friday, 4 January 2013

Chris Wooding: The Iron Jackal

Wooding's work is just good enough that I keep buying it, but not so good that I feel the need to keep it once I've read it. I blogged Retribution Falls ages ago, and I read the sequel some time last year when I didn't have as firm a policy of trying to write something about every new book I managed to finish. I probably wouldn't have said anything very nice about it; I don't remember being in a particularly good mood round about then and it wasn't a very strong book. The Iron Jackal is a bit of a mess, but it's a surprisingly fun read for all of that. I DID find myself wondering if Wooding shares my affection for Donald Westlake's Dortmunder stories, since in a way Iron Jackal is a long shaggy dog story about how one robbery gets a crew of likeable scamps into trouble and leads to an endless string of other robberies. I suspect Wooding has at least read some of those books, because he strikes me as a man who's writing from a firm base of a lot of movies and books, which he's twiddling round in his mind to see how they'll fit his cast of ne'er-do-wells. So I didn't mind at all when half way through the book we go his take on pod-racing for a few chapters, since he didn't just nick the idea wholesale but had some fun with it.

Back in 2010, I made the point that Retribution Falls was essentially Firefly with jerks. What makes Wooding a better writer than I appreciated at the time is that his jerks are trying to be better than that, and over the course of the three Ketty Jay books to date, they've been evolving, as has the world. Although Wooding's not as good a writer as Stephen Hunt, I've found myself impressed by the way his background world has been developing a sense of texture and change; the stupid things which the crew of Ketty Jay have pulled off are having an effect on the world around them, and as the third book closes out, it seems as though they may have triggered off a major war by accident. It's nice to read a series of books in which there is a big plot going on that the main characters just barely grasp. The big nation states are squaring off against each other, and within that, various cabals and weird religions are up to incomprehensible mischief which looks set to make the wars even worse. It's clever, and it reminds me a little of the deep game which Joe Abercrombie has been playing since The First Law trilogy.

The Iron Jackal has one plot and one theme, but arguably far too much incident. The plot is that endlessly accident prone Cap'n Frey no sooner steals a priceless relic than he afflicts himself with a curse and has to spend the rest of the book returning it to the place it was stolen for. I sort of lost track of how many hoops he had to jump through before he got out from under the curse, though it's all carried off with enough panache that I didn't really mind. Meanwhile, with the Cap'n possibly doomed, most of his crew are tempted by the prospect of life beyond their piratical misadventures in the Ketty Jay. It's a clever approach, since it throws open the prospect of the crew falling apart while letting the reader get to know each of them better, which in turn makes the prospect of them leaving more worrying.

I don't often get to watch a writer steadily improving while working with the same characters (generally, if anything, they seem to get worse), but Wooding has kept stepping up as he's brought out each new book. The adventures have got more over the top and the background stakes keep getting bigger, but it's the character work which impresses me more. It's not work for the ages, but I find myself looking forward to seeing what happens next, both for the larger background and for the increasingly three dimensional crew. 

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