CategoryWooding Chris

Clarke Award 2010: in review

The commentary I’ve encountered on this year’s Clarke Award generally agrees on two things: that it’s a five-horse race, and that Chris Wooding is the author who’s written the also-ran. Having read all the shortlisted novels, I must concur with that view. Retribution Falls is a good book on its own terms — a superior sf adventure story — but it seems lacking in the context of this shortlist. It just doesn’t have the extra depth that the others, in their different ways, all have. For that reason, Wooding’s book is first out of the running for me.

The favourite to win the Clarke this year is The City & the City. This is a fascinating, innovative novel (the first, as far as I’m aware, to engage so explicity with the crtical taxonomy of fantasy that has emerged in the last fifteeen years), possibly China Miéville’s best-written to date. I like it very much… but I don’t think it should win. The reason I don’t think it should win is that the Clarke is an award for science fiction, and The City & the City doesn’t make sense if read as sf — one is forced into an unsatisfactory psychological interpretation. However, the novel does make sense — and is much more interesting — if read as fantasy (see my review for more on this); I’d be happy for it to win any fantasy awards for which it may be nominated, but I don’t see it as a good fit for the Clarke.

I intended to review the entire shortlist, but, in the end, I’m one title down. The reason I haven’t written previously about Gwyneth Jones‘s Spirit is that I really struggled to get to grips with it. I grasped the basics of the story, but there’s so much else about which I’m not sure that I can’t see my way to giving the novel a proper review. Why I experienced this difficulty, I don’t know; maybe it was because of all the associated books I hadn’t read (Spirit is a re-interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and is connected to both Jones’s earlier Aleutian Trilogy and her Bold as Love sequence), maybe something else. Whatever, though I’m not able to comment on Spirit in detail, I do gain an impression of a significant work.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson combines fictional historical biography with far-future sf, to what I found was mixed effect. It is an excellent work at times, but tries one’s patience at others, and its two aspects don’t integrate as well as they might. But there’s a lot about the book that I know I missed (I didn’t pick up on all the sbutext, for example), so I’m quite willing to accept that Galileo’s Dream is a stronger book than I found it to be, and hence a strong contender for the Clarke.

There’s also a lot about Adam Roberts‘s Yellow Blue Tibia that I know I missed — but, all the same, I thoroughly loved it. Of all the shortlisted title, this is the one I enjoyed the most, both for its humour and for what it does as a work of imaginative literature. I can’t judge in full how successful it is, because for that I’d need more knowledge of its historical setting, and the science fiction with which it engages — but it’s worthy of winning the Clarke as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, Marcel Theroux‘s excellent Far North, which is my other pick of the shortlist. A post-disaster novel which is less about the effect of change on the world than itseffect on humanity, this is a quiet book that makes its point subtly and with force. It works superbly as an aesthetic whole, to a greater extent than perhaps any other novel on the shortlist. A win for Far North would be thoroughly deserved.

So, I’d most like to see Roberts or Theroux be awarded the Clarke this year, but, really, it’s an open field, and I would not like to predict who will win. The winner will be announced this Wednesday, and I look forward to finding out whom it will be.

Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls (2009)

When first we meet Darian Frey, freebooting captain of the Ketty Jay, he is being held captive by a smuggler. That can’t last for long, of course, as there’s a story to get underway; sure enough, a bit of artful escaping later, and Frey is back on the run with his raggle-taggle crew of misfits. Over the course of the novel, the Ketty Jay will be drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy, which will see her crew being hunted by some of the world’s most feared individuals, including the pirate captain Trinica Dracken, who just happens to be an old flame of Frey’s.

The stage is set for Retribution Falls to be a fine adventure story, and Chris Wooding does not disappoint in that regard. He imbues his prose with the requisite amount of energy and colour, and knows just when to move the plot in another direction. Quite often, a significant event may happen in between chapters or scenes, which is a neat way of sustaining momentum, as it constantly shifts events beyond the reader’s understanding (albeit for only brief amounts of time). Although the characters aren’t overly fleshed out (this being primarily a plot-driven novel, and the first in a series), they have their share of flaws and interesting back-stories. And Wooding’s world of airships, electricity and magic, is not without its quirks (magic in this world takes the form of ‘daemonism’, a semi-scientific practice in which all effects are achieved by binding daemons, who take a little of the practitioner’s energy for their trouble). There is enough here to keep one engrossed to the end of the book.

The thing is, though, that Retribution Falls lacks that certain something which would take it beyond being a fine adventure story. The plot is not so surprising, the characterisation not so rich, the setting not so distinctive, as to make the book truly shine. In other words, the novel is good as far as it goes, with both the positives and negatives that stem from that. But, if you’re looking for an entertaining tale of swashbuckling adventure, Retribution Falls is most definitely a title you should investigate.

Links
Chris Wooding’s website
Ketty Jay blog

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

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