Fiction Reviews

The Ace of Skulls

(2013) Chris Wooding, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 492pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09811-4


Before we get started, some praise for the excellent cover art by Stephan Martiniere, which really sets the tone for the mayhem and danger that what is to follow within the pages of The Ace of Skulls, the fourth and final book in 'The Tales of the Ketty Jay' series, following on from various dastardly (and sometimes not very successful) deeds chronicled in Retribution Falls, , and The Iron Jackal and what you get is more of the same Ė some steampunkery, science fiction, fantasy and a smidgen of horror, as well as piracy, loveable rogues, tales of deering-do, and some skull-duggery and back-stabbing along the way. In the past, the crew of the Ketty Jay have managed to destroy ancient cities, kill off royalty and start a civil war between the religious sect known as the Awakeners and the government forces led by the Archduke. Now they just have to decide if they are going to fight in the war they have started and which side they are going to be on.

Except Captain Darian Frey has other ideas, chief of them to stay out of trouble and possibly make a fast buck, or so it would seem, but in reality he wants to find his lost love, the pirate queen Trinica Dracken, and that leads his merry band straight into a secret Awakener camp,so it seems that the time for sitting on the fence is over and itís now time to get their hands dirty and splattered with blood which doesnít go down well with his crew of Doc Malvery, Jez the navigator, Silo the engineer and the rest of the motley, er, crew, right down to Slag, the cat, who even gets a look-in plot-wise.

Strangely enough, applying the coldly detached eye of the reviewer, everything within this fourth book seems a bit hectic and slightly rushed, as if in a rush to get things resolved. I am sure there are some readers who will like the over-the-topness of the action, the various excellent exotic locations that Wooding conjures up within his worldview, the snappy dialogue, the humour, the putdowns, the band of lead characters which make up the Jayís crew who exhibit their best and worst character traits, and for these readers this will be a satisfactory conclusion to events, and they will look forward to the possibility of encountering some of the lead characters in other books that Wooding might write in this universe. I got the distinct feeling that this was like a TV series that was supposed to run for five seasons but then the network ordered the grand pulling of the plug after season four, and it was a case of get everything resolved NOW, no matter how rushed, or jam-packed it might seem to be. I suppose that was the fate of the TV series Firefly, which didnít even make it to a second series, but Joss Whedon managed to pull all the strings together in the film follow-up Serenity and several people have commented elsewhere in the world of fandom and online reviews about the similarity between that TV series and this (now) four-book series as well as likening it to Star Trek, Star Wars, and Frey to a particular Mr. Solo (no, not Napoleon, the other one). This could have been two books, with everything taken at a slower pace with a hefty dose of real jeopardy for the characters illustrated by the likes of Adrian Tchaikovsky and Joe Abercrombie and others in the way they ruthlessly dispatch some of their cast. Followers of the series will either love it, or may be like me and be slightly disappointed.

Ian Hunter

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