One can’t help but delight in the antics of Captain Frey of the airship The Kitty Jay. A swashbuckling rapscallion, he has an ego unsurpassed by his wit or his morals. Lately, however, he has found that his normally self-centered ethics are undergoing an uncomfortable transformation as he discovers he cares about his crew of misfits. The crew’s been together on The Kitty for awhile now, and they are finally feeling flush with success after their most recent exploits (The Black Lung Captain). The crew includes Crake, the “highly educated and eloquent” daemonist and his metal golem, Bess; Pinn, more muscle than brain, but determined to be an inventor; Harkins, a stellar flier with a severe anxiety disorder; Silo, a former slave with a mysterious past; Malvery, a doctor with a drinking problem; Jez, “who was half-daemon, and who was dead by most people’s standards”; and Slag, the irascible cat.
“Crake was less than impressed. He’d been expecting someone fiercely intense, a wild-eyed savage of some kind. Instead he’d found a giant bearded raisin.”
Characterization is exceptional, though undoubtedly many readers will recognize crew members as character archetypes from other sources. I couldn’t help but imagine Frey as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean as I read, but many reviewers cite Captain Mal Reynolds in Firefly as well. It’s a compliment to Wooding, really, that he can weave a such glorious tale of adventure that it calls to mind other stories and characters we love. While the narrative largely follows Frey, it also spends time with each member of the crew. As they each undergo their own personal crisis, there’s opportunity for emotional development outside of Frey’s more egotistical perspective. Wooding nicely captures the feel of a band of misfits choosing to trust each other even as they make contingency plans: Crake thought [Pinn] an odious, immoral dimwit with the intelligence of a cough drop, but he was crew, so that was that.“
One of the challenges with characterization is how to have them handle conflict without endangering sympathy for the character. Wooding gauges the line nicely, creating Frey as a Jack Sparrow-like weasel whose morals usually come through in the end. When his crew questions him about the latest heist, Frey finds himself flailing as he tries to justify the plan:
“‘Aren’t we the bad guys?’ Pinn asked suddenly.
They all stared at him. He shrugged. ‘Well, I mean, we’re robbing them, right?’
‘We’re never the bad guys!’ said Frey, horrified at the suggestion. He was surprised the moral objection had come from Pinn rather than Crake. Pinn didn’t have any morals, so he probably just wanted the attention.
‘Plus,’ he raised a finger, ‘those on that train are gonna be armed guards. They’re paid to get shot. If people like us didn’t try to rob trains, they’d be out of a job.’
‘We’re providing employment opportunities now?’ Crake asked, deadpan.
‘Exactly!’ said Frey. ‘Greasing the wheels of foreign capital, and that.’
‘Cap’n,’ said Crake. ‘I do believe you know as much about economics as Pinn does about hygiene.’
Malvery mopped his pate, which had reddened and begun to peel. ‘Look, as long as we stop short of killing women and children, and we ain’t shooting adorable little puppy dogs in the face, I’m in.’”
Plotting is fun, with a typical heist scenario leading to one complication after another. Much like a movie, Iron Jackal opens with a shootout and foot chase, Frey outdoing his normal cowardly efforts as he chases Ashua, a former street urchin with valuable intel. Once Ashua is on board, the heist proceeds, only to lead to unfortunate consequences, unsurprisingly caused by Frey. The crew rallies round him even as each faces doubts and set off after the MacGuffin. But what an entertaining journey along the way! A variety of setting and political situations keeps the action from feeling repetitive. The end engagement is a unexpected, complex situation that points to the direction for the next book –but is not a cliff-hanger for this one.
Tone and voice are wonderfully balanced, able to maintain a degree of suspense and uncertainty while cracking jokes along the way. Witty dialogue is tempered by emotional turmoil, which places it a step or two above many action-focused stories. Frey and Ashua have a Beatrice and Benedick repartee (Much Ado About Nothing), while Crake frequently makes word jokes that only Ashua (and hopefully, the reader) understands:
“‘Why do I need a dictionary?’ Frey complained.
‘No reason,’ said Ashua. ‘Now let’s get down there and mortify some guards.’
Frey was caught in one of those moments when he didn’t know what somebody meant and couldn’t decide whether to pretend he did or not.
Pinn groaned, as if explaining things to Frey was extraordinarily tiresome. ‘Mordant means dead, don’t it? So mortify means kill, obviously. They even sound the same. Right?’ He looked at Ashua, who nodded encouragingly.
‘Oh,’ said Frey. “Oh! Let’s mortify some guards. I’m with you now. Didn’t hear you right the first time, that’s all.’
Crake and Ashua exchanged a glance, though it was hard to tell its meaning behind their goggles. Malvery tutted to himself. Frey had the distinct impression that a joke was being had at his expense, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it was.’”
Extremely readable, it’s one of those books that swaggers into your afternoon, says, “don’t mind if I do,” kicking off boots and placing feet on coffee table. For the right mood, priceless.