Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Review: The Ketty Jay series by Chris Wooding

Minor spoilers for the Ketty Jay series ahead!

It’s been a while since I wrote a full-length review for a book or a series. I find mini-reviews much more effective when I’m rounding up my feelings towards my recently read pile. However last night I finished The Ace of Skulls, the final book in the Tales of the Ketty Jay series by Chris Wooding and I was left with lots of thoughts. I’ve been reading this four-book series since the beginning of the year and it’s been an experience to say the least, so I wanted to round up my overall final thoughts because when I finished up the story in the early hours of this morning, I had some feelings.

The Tales of The Ketty Jay is a steampunk-fantasy series which follows a crew of dysfunctional pirates on board a flying vessel known as the Ketty Jay. The crew are a misfit bunch of characters each with their own history and are led by Darian Frey, their rogue, down-on-his-luck Captain who is better at charming ladies than he is at leading his crew. Alongside Frey you’ve got Crake, a man on the run who practises an outlawed science known as deamonism; Malvery, the loveable drunk doctor; Silo, the silent engineer; Jez, the navigator with a dark and terrifying secret; Bess, Crake’s eight foot golem; Harkins and Pinn, two bickering out-pilots who are the polar opposite of one another; and then you’ve got Slag the Cat who roams the Ketty Jay and is as much a part of the crew as the rest of them. They make their living transporting contraband and generally living on the wrong side of the law, as pirates do, and the plot of each book is fast paced with one dilemma after another around each corner. It’s a fun, swashbuckling fantasy series that feels as loveable as Pirates of the Caribbean in a world very different to our own.

I’ve never read any steampunk before so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved the world-building and the futuristic, yet historical feel to the setting. Chris Wooding has clearly spent a lot of time crafting this world for his characters, creating a believable societal system with politics and religion being the driving pivotal points in the big events that drive the plot. One thing that was missing, something that I think is an added bonus with any fantasy series, was a map at the start of each book. The central characters move around a lot, going from country to country and frequently reference other places, so I think a map would have been greatly beneficial. I used my imagination of course, but as a reference point I think it would have been handy to know how far one place was from another.

So, the world and the setting get a big thumbs up from me, but what about the characters? Character focus in novels is a big thing for me and as much as do enjoy a fast-paced story, the characters ultimately have to be the central motivation to keep me reading. My favourite parts of these books were the scenes that focused on character building, which I thought on a whole, Chris Wooding did a good job with. The relationship between Frey and his crew goes through many ups and downs but they always pull together and learn to work and live together like the dysfunctional yet loveable family that they are. The first two books, Retribution Falls and The Black Lung Captain, were in my opinion the strongest at building and exploring the crew’s relationship. Things fell a little short me by the third book. There seemed to be an increase in action scenes which I did get a bit lost in. Battle scenes always tend to go by in a bit of blur for me.

Frey is the most central figure in this ensemble cast and despite his sometimes-questionable ability of being a good leader, his compassion and will to be a better person shines through. His relationship with former lover-turned nemesis Trinica Draken, a formidable pirate queen in her own right, plays a big part in Frey’s character arc and a lot of his motivation by third book stems from his feelings towards her. It’s very “will they, won’t they,” and their relationship goes through a lot of turmoil before the final book comes to a close. I enjoyed Frey’s character, but was I entirely satisfied with his character arc? For me his story became a bit romance heavy in the final book, to the point where he risks the safety of his crew over the woman he loves, which for me negates what he and his crew had been previously been through.

As for the other characters and their stories, I enjoyed the time I spent with them and I appreciated how they all had their own individual character arcs. Crake, one of my favourite characters, felt like he’d come a long way since the opening of book one and everything in his story was rounded off nicely. Pinn and Harkins were two of my least favourite characters; they felt the most under-developed and I felt they were mainly there for comic relief. Even Slag the Cat gets his own chapter thrown in every now and then, which I thought was a bit odd and the first time it happened it took me right out of the story because it doesn’t add anything to the overall narrative.

One of my favourite characters and my biggest disappointment was Jez, the Ketty Jay’s trusty navigator. The main focus of Jez’s story is that she’s half-Mane; a ghoulish, haunting creature that is neither dead or alive. They’re feared beings who live in the north and Jez’s encounter with one left her not quite human, but not quite Mane. She spends the first two books trying to fight her Mane-side and understand these new-found supernatural abilities she possesses (amazing eyesight, incredible perception at knowing where places are) all of which improve her ability as a navigator. But by the third book I felt as though she gets forgotten about. Her Mane-side is growing and she can’t control it; the crew become a bit wary of her and all of the aspects of her original character just sort of disappear. By the end of Book Four she’s turned fully Mane and leaves to join her brethren. It felt as though Jez the navigator and member of the Ketty Jay left in Book Two and the last two books she was Jez the Mane who the crew weren’t sure about anymore. She was one of my favourite characters and her story arc fell very flat and cold for me.

So, what is my overall impression of this series? My general feelings towards it is that I enjoyed these books and I had a lot of fun with them. I liked the time I spent with these characters and despite not being entirely satisfied with some character arcs, I am going to miss them. I loved the fast-paced action, I thought the world building was brilliant, and as a newbie to steampunk fantasy I’m very glad I read these books. They’d been on my radar for sometime so it feels to good have finally given them a shot.

Overall series rating: 4 stars

Would I recommend? Yes

And who would I recommend to? Lovers of fantasy; people who enjoy fast paced historical fiction with a twist; lovers of well-developed and realistic characters.

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