Men In Tight Pants And Women In Refrigerators
I never wanted to kill, I am not naturally evil
Such things I do just to make myself more attractive to you
Have I failed?
Morrissey, The Last Of The Famous International Playboys
The problem is, of course, that pirates are cunts. They are murdering, raping, thieving cunts and dunking them in a bucket of charisma a la Mal Reynolds and Jack Sparrow makes no difference to this fact. Luckily pirates are thin on the ground but they have a ubiquitous land-based equivalent in the form of gangsters. On film, if you are a hitman, you are cool. In real life, if you murder people for money, you are a cunt. (At this point I would have liked to point you to Cosmo Landesman review of The American but, alas, it is behind Murdoch’s Iron Curtain.) Occasionally you get a film like In Bruges which addresses the inherent moral issues but these are so rare that I have essentially given up on gangster films.
Which brings us to Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding. Darian Frey, our hero, is clearly a pirate: he has an airship and a crew and even a magic cutless. He is equally clearly a massive cunt. What he is not is charismatic; Wooding has crafted a charmless character, a loveable rogue who is not loveable. If Captain Reynold is meant to be good but not nice and Captain Sparrow is meant to be nice but not good then Captain Frey is neither nice or good. In fact, his defining characteristic is that he is a whiner (and nobody likes a whiner).
Here he is having just accidently committed mass murder:
Wanted for murder? Piracy, fine, he’d own up to that (to himself, at least. Damned if he’d admit it to a judge.) But murder? He was no murder! What happened to the Ace of Skulls wasn’t his fault!
It didn’t matter that piracy and murder carried the same penalty of hanging. In real terms, whether he did bothor only one was moot: his end would be the same. But it was the principle of the thing. It was all so tragically unfair. (p. 77)
He wanted to murder half a dozen people, steal loads of money and get away free. Instead, he murdered several dozen people, stole nothing and has the rozzers on his tail. Poor baby :( And here he is twenty pages later, having again “accidently” committed murder:
Frey’s reaction was as instinctive as Codge’s had been. He pulled the trigger. Codge’s head snapped back; tiny beads of blood splattered Frey’s face. Codge tipped backwards and crumpled to the floor.
Frey wasted a moment on shock. He hadn’t wanted to fire. What was he doing, going for his gun like that? (p. 100)
All Frey did was break into someone’s house with the intention of violently assaulting, how could he be expect to know there would be resistance? So we know Frey is a self-serving, self-deceiving murderous cunt. This deception extends to others in his milleu: “Sharka was a dangerous man, but he had a heart of gold, and Frey suddenly felt unworthy of his kindness.” (p206) Yes, he actually said heart of gold. Sometimes a bit of self-awareness does penetrate though. Once he arrives at Secret Pirate Island AKA
Hong Kong Retribution Falls, he finds he doesn’t much like spending time with people like him:
There was a wildness here that he found frightening… Danger surrounded them. He found he actually missed the spectre of the miltia. He liked his illegal doings to be conducted within the safety of an orderly civilisation. Total lawlessness meant survival based on strength or cunning, and Frey didn’t have too much of either. (p. 271)
Taken together, what do those three quotes suggest to you? Because to me they suggest comic writing that just happens to lack humour. You could read this as Wooding inviting you to laugh at Frey but, given the fact he is consistently written as the hero of the story, I find it more likely we are meant to laugh with him (that final sentence, for example, is clearly meant to be self-deprecating). In other words, Retribution Falls is a romp. Call me an old fuddy-duddy but romps and mass murder don’t mix.
At this point it is probably worth having a look at this review of the novel by Dan Hemmens of Ferretbrain. I read this earlier in the year and it is not the sort of review you forget. Hemmens probably likes Retribution Falls more than me but his review is even more damning:
So far, so swashbuckling, and it is indeed about sixty percent rollicking good fun. Unfortunately it’s then twenty percent tedious exposition, ten percent sloppy writing, ten percent sexism.
Before we get onto the sexism, there is a question raised (at length) in the comments about how reliable and sympathetic Frey is as a narrator. Clearly, Frey’s viewpoint is subjective but the only conclusion to draw from this subjectivity is that he is a massive cunt. So the argument has to be that perhaps Wooding intends Frey to be a cunt. However, there is nothing in the book – tone, character development, the viewpoint of other characters – to suggest this. So when it becomes clear that, in additon to being a cunt, Frey is also a massive misogynist, it is very hard not to attribute some of this to the novel itself. Hemmens has some handy sets of stats at the end of his review, including this one:
Number of Named Female Characters: 4
Of Whom Protagonist’s ex Lovers: 2
Of Whom Dead: 2
Of Whom Rape Victims: 1
Of Whom Murdered By Viewpoint Character: 1
The two characters who fall for him do so because of his amazing good looks and immense charisma. Since there is no evidence on the page of Frey having any charisma, this leaves them as two naive young fools who have had their heads turned by a pretty face. Frey promptly does a runner because, after all, all women are oppressive shrews who force committment on you. The consequence for the first women is that she attempts suicide, miscarries, is disowned and then spends the next decade being raped and beaten by pirates. Pirates like Frey. The second woman gets off lightly, she is merely disowned and imprisoned in a convent against her will. Frey shows no remorse for any of this (and, indeed, he has simply allowed history to repeat itself).
Why is any of this Woodings fault rather than Frey’s? For starters, Frey is the hero of Retribution Falls. I’m happy to hear arguments against this but I think you would be hard pressed to find them in the text. Then are Frey’s re-unions with the two women. When he meets the second, he spins her a line and she immediately jumps on his cock. When he meets the first, he discovers she has been turned into a mega-bitch (what with all the sustained physical and emotional trauma). The only real remorse Frey shows is that she is no longer fuckable but, by the end of the novel, they have reached a rapprochement.
Finally, we have the main female character. She is not one of Frey’s exes, she is competant, she is skilled, she is a person in her own right. So, obviously, at the conclusion of the book, she springs Frey from jail by having sex with an old man. Wooding is at pains to tell us that it is particularly degrading sex but this is instantly forgotten for a hugs all round finale. In fact, there are reasons within the book why this even more offensive than I have made it sound. Hemmens has much more on this and other offensive details in his review but it is hard to escape the feeling that in Retribution Falls women exist in relation to men and are only there to be used by them or to make them feel bad.