The Ace of Skulls by Chris Wooding
Let’s just skip straight to the conclusion: Ace of Skulls is my favourite book of the year. I’ve looked back at the lists of books I’ve read in previous years, and it’d be my favourite new book of the last three years (although on reflection I’d change my 2012 list to have Ready Player One above Red Country, and Ready Player One is the closest contender to Ace of Skulls).
So let the gushing commence: Ace of Skulls is the fourth and final part of the Tales of Ketty Jay series. The series is most easily described as “like Firefly, but only on one planet.” That’s a bit of a lazy comparison, but its useful shorthand; the titular Ketty Jay is an airship belonging to and operated by rogue and sky pirate Captain Darian Frey. Frey is charismatic, charming, and ambitious, more than a little dim-witted (he finds voices in his earpiece distracting, and prefers to take his earpiece out to limit his concentration to one thing at a time). The opening paragraph contains the sentence “Lacking the ability to win in a fair fight, he survived instead by guile and the illogical optimism favoured by gamblers and drunks, which made the riskiest of plans seem like a good idea at the time”, which sums him up perfectly.
Frey is a lovely character. He’s competent and entertaining enough to make it incredibly easy to root for him, but he has enough negative qualities (formerly a drug addict, now just overwhelming self-centred) to make him a rounded character. As the series has progressed the sharper edges of his character traits (both positive and negative) have become a bit more rounded off, leaving him, at the start of Ace of Skulls, an excellent and interesting leading man. He might be a dick occasionally, but his heart is always in the right place (while regularly leading him to exactly the wrong place).
Frey’s crew on the Ketty Jay is made up of an assortment of characters that could easily be painted as archetypes, but never are: Silo, the unquestioningly supportive first mate and ship’s engineer; Malvery, the occasionally principled, always alcoholic doctor; Jez, the mysterious hotshot navigator and pilot; Crake, the disgraced aristocrat, running from his self-inflicted woes; Pin, the obnoxiously arrogant, obnoxiously stupid young fighter pilot; Harkins, the shell-shocked, cowardly veteran fighting pilot; and Slag, the ship’s cat. The cast is supplemented by a range of allies, enemies and frenemies. Frenemies is definitely the largest of those categories, as most people who have helped the Ketty Jay thus far have also had the privilege of getting fucked over by them.
With the possible exceptions of Pin and Harkins, the roundedness applies to the other characters aboard the Ketty Jay too. Each crew members’ motivations and character have been examined and expanded upon so that there’s real meaning behind them. By this point in the series we know why Silo is unflinchingly loyal to Frey; why Malvery’s alcoholism and occasional principles raise their heads; why Jez is a so secretive (and such a good navigator); and what Crake is running from, and what led him there in the first place. I could tell you this, but it’s a rewarding journey to read it all for yourself: the previous books in the series (Retribution Falls, The Black Lung Captain and The Iron Jackal) have all been good to great (with each being better than the previous one), but Ace of Skulls is a huge step up beyond them.
The thing that’s so fantastic about Ace of Skulls isn’t just how it works as a culmination of absolutely everything that has gone before in the series (which it is), but how that culmination is so incredibly and uniquely character driven, and not just by one main character, but by all of the characters in the crew. That probably sounds confusing, and I suspect my explanation that tries to avoid spoilers of any of the series will also be, but I’ll go for it anyway.
Most books, especially fantasy books, have a specific plot point that drives the narrative, and the characters react to that. In Ace of Skulls, the entire plot is driven by the characters. That feels rare enough in books I’ve loved to be worthy of note: Frodo doesn’t invent the ring in Lord of the Rings or go seeking it, he just reacts to the situation outside of his control. Pi doesn’t cause the shipwreck in Life of Pi, but the story is of his reaction to it; Shadow doesn’t help create Wednesday’s plot in American Gods, but his character is shaped by it (and shapes the outcome in return); Ok, Eric Sanderson does actually create his own situation in The Raw Shark Texts, but that was the First Eric Sanderson, and our Eric Sanderson is entirely reactive to the action of Eric Sanderson One. And the explanation of how everything kicked off in that is hidden in the negatives (the Aquarium Fragment, if you wanted to track that down – its online somewhere). And even that is initially driven by the plot point of Clio’s death, rather than entirely by The First Eric Sanderson’s character traits.
Going right back to the first book in the series, Retribution Falls, almost everything that has happened to the Ketty Jay and its crew feels like it has been purely because of their decisions, not some uncontrollable event that they are reacting to. Initially these were just Frey’s decisions. Increasingly it became an ensemble piece of choices that eventually led to the clusterfuck that the Ketty Jay exists in at the start of Ace of Skulls. That continues throughout the novel – it’s Frey’s choice that kicks things off, then increasingly it becomes about the decisions of each of the characters, until they all feed in together towards a fantastic finale. And the key thing is that there’s not a single member of the crew that could be done without. If any of the crew wasn’t there, there’s no way it could all have come together. That’s really impressive. Everything hangs together incredibly well.
When everything does come together for the finale (and I do mean “everything” – shit really kicks off, to the extent that it feels that there’s very little within the entire series that has been wasted), it also feels like every single crew member gets a satisfying conclusion to their own character arc, not just for their arc within the book, but within the full series. Harkins’ progression through the book is particularly enthralling. Hell, even Slag gets a satisfying story arc. Slag has intermittent POV chapters which, despite being almost entirely unrelated to plot events, do a really good job of reflecting the overall mood and position of the crew.
My only quibble with Ace of Skulls is really about something that I’m ready to acknowledge as just a preference, rather than anything particularly bad: I didn’t really like how Jez’s character was treated. I get why she was the way she was, and I thought her personal story throughout the book was absolutely excellent (and again, absolutely required to allow the ending to be so satisfying). But it felt like she had changed significantly from the character that she was at the end of The Iron Jackal to who she was at the start of Ace of Skulls. I guess I’d just liked to have seen the change taking place, and got to see a little of the old Jez in the early running.
I’m not sure I need a conclusion. Do I? Surely the last 1,200 words of gushing praise are enough with me explicitly stating that I loved Ace of Skulls from start to finish. Hell, I love it from even before the start, because the title is absolutely and utterly perfect. And it’s perfect in a way that wouldn’t be as fully appreciated without everything that had come before. But once it is explained, I was kicking myself for not figuring it out in advance.
Rating: 10/10. I’d give it 12 if I could. Wait. I make the rules here. 12/10.
Why you should read it: because it’s the best book I’ve read this year.
Why you shouldn’t read it: because you haven’t read Retribution Falls, The Black Lung Captain and The Iron Jackal yet. Do so now.
Next up: disappointment in every other book. But specifically, Fire Watch by Connie Willis.