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Since he'd almost crashed in the canyon, the question had been haunting him. "What would he leave behind?" Now he had an answer. A damn good story.
"The Black Lung Captain"
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Picture, for a few seconds, a tale of scallywag sky pirates trying to survive beneath the notice of the law. A tale of steampunk airship pirates. And now that we have your attention...

Tales of the Ketty Jay is a series of four sci-fi fantasy books by Chris Wooding which focuses on an aircraft called the Ketty Jay, owned and piloted by Darian Frey, and her ragtag crew.

We follow the ship from the arrival of Jezibeth "Jez" Kyte, the new navigator. She discovers that everyone on this ship has a reason to leave the world behind. Meanwhile, the world keeps trying to drag the crew into the schemes of the great and powerful.

The series plays in a well-established toolbox and doesn't add much (apart from psychological depth), but is damn good fun. The series is now concluded, and consists of four books: Retribution Falls, The Black Lung Captain, The Iron Jackal, and The Ace of Skulls.

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The books contain examples of:

  • Action Girl: Jez and Samandra Bree are incredible combatants. To a much lesser extent, Trinica Dracken who is willing to throw down in a gunfight but is acknowledged as just competent in battle. Later when Ashua makes her appearance, she gave a good fight to Frey and nearly parkour escapes him, she's also an expert at combat driving.
  • Airborne Aircraft Carrier: Every capital airship carries a contingent of fighter jets, with the Mane Dreadnoughts having the most impressive fleet. Even the Ketty Jay carries a pair of fighters.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Trinica Dracken. She was once engaged to one Darian Frey, and found out she was pregnant just before they were due to get married. Frey got cold feet and ran away, leaving Trinica at the alter. She then ends up killing their unborn child in a botched suicide attempt, and eventually runs away from home, only to end up amongst a pirate crew. They brutally raped her and treated her as nothing more than a pet until she had the courage to stab the Captain in the neck, and take over the ship for herself.
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  • All There in the Manual: The first book has a set of rules for the card game Rake in the back.
  • Always Someone Better: Ashua is a savvy street punk who's been through a lot of scraps and adventures in her young life, but when she sees Bess and Jez in battle she notes that she's the Ketty Jay's 3rd most dangerous female. This also happens to Crake, he's one of the greatest daemonists in the world...and then he encounters the World's Greatest Daemonist in the form of Century Knight, Morben Kyne. Kyne's so good that Crake didn't even realize that everything Kyne was wearing is enchanted (and Crake has nothing but admiration).
  • Armour Is Useless: Averted. The Ketty Jay only has a few fixed machine guns, a single autocannon and a mediocre gunner in Malvery, but can still swat down enemy fighters because it has so much armour that it can tank anything short of an autocannon round. Likewise, Bess the Golem can soak gunfire and an armoured Century Knight took a point-blank shotgun blast which just stunned him.
  • "Awesome McCool" Name: Darian Frey.
  • Badass Adorable: Bess, hands down. One minute she'll be tearing through an armoured ship, the next she'll be cooing and singing lullabies.
  • Bad Boss: Frey almost starts off as one, he's not abusive to his crew but initially he didn't give a rat's ass about them, thinking they're just a bunch of transient scoundrels. He improves as he and the crew bond in the first book.
  • Badass Crew: The crew of the Ketty Jay, who all have their strengths and weaknesses, but some of them are the best or near-best in their respective fields.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The funeral at the end of book four. It seems as though the crew are lamenting the Cap'n until "He was a damn fine cat" is uttered.
  • Berserk Button: Pinn has one when he's teased about his sweetheart supposedly waiting for him back home.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Bess is very sweet towards Crake, but she will tear men apart if she has to. Crake himself can also count.
  • BFG: Century Knight, Colden Grudge is a very big man. Big enough to carry a ship's autocannon as his main gun.
  • Big Good: The Century Knights. Kinda. They're mostly enforcers for the Archduke, but they often act as heroic as their reputation if it doesn't interfere with their duty.
  • Bigger Bad: The Awakeners were the main bad guys, but their backers and later betrayers were the Samarlans.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Frey and his crew are definitely grey, they've all done their share of bad things, and they'll kill to avoid being killed, but they won't kill without reason. They even express shock and horror when someone is murdered in front of them for the pettiest of reasons.
    • The Awakeners heavily tread the fine line between grey and black, despite being a supposedly spiritual religious faction, and the Century Knights are ultimately grey, but also the closest you'll get to white in the Ketty Jay universe.
  • Blood Knight: Silo used to be one with a taste for slaughtering enemies, but it's Bess that's the winner here. Bess has a child's delight in slaughter and loves making things (and people) fall apart in her hands. Only Crake mitigate her rampage, but anyone can order her to attack as she loves to hit.
  • Cool Airship: The Ketty Jay manages to be this, despite being quite an old and outdated model at the time the novel is set. Apparently she's patched together in such a haphazzard way, that only Frey can really fly her to her full potential.
    • The Delerium Trigger is a more straightfoward example, although while it's very big and powerful, it's not quite as fast as the smaller fighter ships. Meanwhile, the Storm Dog is an equally powerful frigate and with the help of the Ketty Jay, it was able to defeat the Delerium Trigger and force it into dry dock for months.
    • The Manes have their dreadnoughts which are powerful enough to take down almost anything in their path, a fleet takes on the royal navy and is actually winning before the Manes lose too many ground forces and retreat.
  • Cool Sword: The enchanted cutlass that Crake gives to Frey in order to pay for his passage on the Ketty Jay. It's possessed by a tame demon that makes the cutlass cut through anything and fight on its own - to the point of catching bullets.
  • Cowardly Lion: Crake has a bit of this, with his incompetence and fear in a shoot-out. But Harkins was dangerously close to being a Dirty Coward, he was so bad that even the ship's cat kicked his ass. But through his crush on Jez, he forced himself to man up a few times before taking on a dangerous air race for his own pride. With a victory in that air race and one against the cat, Harkins is still cowardly, but no longer falls apart in battle.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Trinica Dracken in the second book.
  • Corrupt Church: The Awakeners are appear to be a benign religion of unity, based on the ramblings of the last king. However they have religiously persecuted daemonists so they can have a monopoly on demon use. They also have a deal with an enemy nation, the Samarlan, trading future influence for Azryx relics. Finally the upper echelon of the Awakeners intend on starting a demonic invasion.
  • Cultured Badass: Trinica Dracken reads widely, has a very good understanding of religion and politics, and is the deadliest pirate in all of Vardia.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The Manes are a race of undead super-human creatures known for killing everything in their path without exception. In the second book, a legion of them comes across a handful of Century Knights with Bess and the Ketty Jay crew. The Manes never stood a chance.
  • Curse Escape Clause: Frey gets cursed by an Azryx artifact, every night he's visited by a demon, the Iron Jackal. On the final night, the demon will materialize fully and kill him. The curse can be ended by returning the artifact to its rightful place. Too bad, Crake accidentally destroys it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Darian, Jez, Crake. Malvery and Silo have their moments.
  • Deader Than Dead: After getting burnt to a blacken crisp by a flamethrower, the crew thought Jez was done for sure. Except that wasn't quite the case...
  • Demon Slaying: After a certain incident, breaking the curse of the Iron Jackal is no longer an option for Frey. Good thing, Crake had a back-up plan. When the Iron Jackal fully materialized, Crake had experimental anti-demon machines ready. Frey, Ugrik and Crake were able to corner the Iron Jackal with these machines, before Frey stabs it with his demon-bound cutlass. Later on, Crake will end up killing 3 demonic Imperators with the help of an amulet he made.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Amalicia Thade had been screwed over by Frey twice, but what would lead her to betray the Ketty Jay crew and the Century Knights in an ambush that led to Jez's death? Amalicia was feeling horny while her new husband was away and wanted Frey to have sex with her, unfortunately Frey couldn't get it up that time.
  • The Dreaded: Some of the Century Knights come with fearsome reputations, but their leader Kedmund Drave is especially someone to be scared of in a fight.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Everyone has issues. However, in the process of getting over them, they demonstrate surprising psychological complexity.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Arguably, Bess's situation. The suit of armour actually contains the soul of Crake's niece, whom he murdered after a summoned daemon took over his body. He managed to attach her soul to the suit of armour, but she only exists in her most basic form, more like a pet than the bright and vibrant little girl she had once been.
    • Also what everyone believes happens when the Manes get a hold of you.
  • The Fellowship Has Ended: At the end of the story, half of the Ketty Jay crew move on. Jez has joined the Manes, Crake takes up with Samandra Bree and is studying under Morben Kyne, Bess joins the army of Golems, Pinn is getting married and Harkins becomes a flight instructor for the Coalition Navy. The rest of the crew stay together with ex-pirate queen Trinica joining them and they intend to keep in touch.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Initially the Ketty Jay crew have no real connection with each other than having no where else to go. Some of the members even hated each other, but through their first adventure the team is practically family now.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Bess the Golem.
  • The Friend No One Likes: Pinn is an flatuent idiot who's dangerously clumsy with a gun when he's not flying a fighter plane. No one really likes him on the crew, but they do sometimes miss him whenever he disappears as he's an idiot that everyone can blame.
  • Gatling Good: During a heist against an armoured train, the Ketty Jay crew were given 3 Rattletraps, which were armoured dune buggies with gatling guns. The Rattletrap's gatling guns enabled the crew to successfully raid the train.
  • Gentle Giant: Bess the Golem is a large, powerful and frightening suit of armour. But she's a total sweetheart when she's not being ordered to attack.
  • Golem: Bess is a hulking armoured suit that's animated by a sliver of a dead girl's soul. As a golem, Bess is so strong that she can tear through thick, solid steel with ease and hold down packs of demons that have Super Strength. Later there's an entire army of golems, that wreck what's in their way.
  • Hell on Earth: After the Awakeners had created their demonic Imperators, the leaders of the Awakeners also became possessed including the Lord High Cryptographer. Possessed, the Awakeners planned to a demonic invasion of the world.
  • Hero of Another Story: The Century Knights are clearly this. They are an law-keeping organization whose each member has a very specific appearance and who all seem to embody the general feel of a pulp adventurer.
  • Hidden Depths: The entire crew of the Ketty Jay have intricate backstories to explain how they've become who they are. One example is Malvery who's a war hero in the 1st War and was awarded one of highest military honours, he never mentions this as he's since become a fat drunk.
  • Hypocrite: The Awakeners preach against demonists and often kill them on sight. However it turns out their Imperators are really members who are demonically possessed to get supernatural powers and the Awakeners used early demonist lore to create them.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Darian Frey, he's a selfish dick but there's no doubting he cares about his crew and enough of conscience remains that he will feel guilty if he's in the wrong.
  • The Juggernaut: Whenever Bess takes to action, expect steel walls to be ripped open and scores of enemies torn to bits while Bess walks through a hail of bullets. Then there's an actual Juggernaut that shows up in Iron Jackal, this is a Godzilla-sized bio-mechanical monster that can breath out a colossal heat ray that tears through city blocks and contemporary armies. The Ketty Jay just buggers out against it.
  • Kill It with Fire: This happens to Jez in their battle to capture an Imperator. While going berserk, she Flash Step through Awakener bullets, unfortunately one of the assault team had a flamethrower and Jez can't avoid a flaming gas cloud. Getting torched, downed her so the Awakener gave her a second helping...
  • Lost Technology: The Azryx are a disappeared people that have technology and demonist lore that's centuries or millenniums ahead of their modern-day descendants. This includes making cities out of ceramic and laser-shooting bio-mechanical monsters.
  • Magic Compass: Grayther Crake makes daemon-bound compasses for the crew of the Ketty Jay that always point towards Darian Frey.
  • Magical Accessory: The Ketty Jay crew has daemon-bound earpieces from Crake that allows them to communicate long distance with each other. The Archduke has daemonists working for him, so his elite Century Knights have their own magical artifacts, for example Kedmund Drave has gauntlets that can catch bullets.
  • Meat Moss: Silo is horrified to find that the powerplant of the Azryx city is a machine that's partially coated in beating pseudo-heart tissue.
  • Medals for Everyone: Almost all of the Ketty Jay crew are given medals by the Archduke at an award ceremony for their heroics in the battle of Thesk, Frey didn't get one as it'd be too awkward politically (he once killed the Archduke's son) and neither did Ashua though she did get a pardon for treason.
  • Mêlée à Trois: In the final book, the last battle was initially between the Awakeners and the Coalition. Then the Awakeners's ally, the Samarlans come and betray them - intending to kill both sides. Then the Manes have been summoned and smash into the Samarlan fleet from behind...
  • More Deadly Than the Male: Jez doesn't look like much, but with her superhuman strength and senses, she's easily the deadliest fighter in the crew after Bess the Golem. When Jez taps into her Mane might, her rampage look alot like Bess's. Jez also has limited Mind Control and Seeing Through Another's Eyes as higher-order abilities.
  • New Meat: In Iron Jackal, Ashua was just a hired gun for the Ketty Jay mounting a train raid. Later in the book, Frey needed a shipment of medicine for trade. The dealer agreed to give it, but in return they take Ashua permanently. The crew was split about taking her, with Frey especially against it since he was attracted to her. There were plans to eventually dump her, but Ashua is already a skilled operator and saved Silo, so with "First Mate" Silo vouching for her she's fully crew.
  • Not Quite Dead: Despite getting torched, Jez is still animated and the damage was mostly external, her insides were slowly regenerating new flesh for her.
  • Our Demons Are Different: They're sentient energy patterns from another reality and with the proper sound frequencies, they can be harnessed and controlled. Primitive people can also control them by going through a drug-induced trance.
  • Path of Inspiration: The Awakeners, especially during the second book.
  • Perpetual Storm: The Wrack, a permanent belt of storms which starts at the North Pole where the eldritch Manes live, and runs across a large segment of ocean. Only recently has anyone found way past to the lands beyond.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The captain is a drug addict with commitment issues, the medic is an alcoholic Sad Clown, the mechanic is an escaped slave, the wingmen are a delusional fantastist and a Shell-Shocked Veteran, the Magitek guy is wanted for manslaughter, the navigator is a Half-Human Hybrid... and you cross them at your peril.
  • Rape as Backstory Pretty much stated that this is what Trinica Davis had to go through in order to become the dread Queen of the Skies we know today
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Archduke does much to prevent the murdering of daemonists by the Awakeners. While he has good reason to hate Frey, he's able to move past this and let Frey take command of a strike force (he's the most qualified to lead it). He also eventually forgives Frey and awards Frey's crew for their heroics.
  • Rescue Arc: In order to save Frey from the Iron Jackal demon, the crew needed to return an ancient artifact to its original home. Unfortunately Ugrik, the Adventurer Archaeologist who found the artifact, was held captive in a Samarlan holding pen. This forced a round-about side-adventure which involved permanently taking on a new member and finishing out Silo's rebel leader background story.
  • Secret Weapon: The Awakeners had an Azryx EMP device which destroys almost all of the Coalition Navy, luckily the Coalition had their own secret weapon - an army of Golems with each one more powerful than Bess.
  • Share Phrase: 'Spit and blood!' is an exclamation used by almost everyone, from pirates, to upper class arisitocrats.
  • A Simple Plan: The books follow a formula that begins, "the ship is hired to do a simple job for quite a lot of money. Then it turns out someone tried to take them for a ride."
  • Standard Airship Scuffle: Despite having the technology for them, there are no anti-ship missiles in this world, so battles in the sky are usually fought with capital airships pounding on each other using cannons and autocannons, with fighter jets doing some raking machine gun fire on vulnerable sections and mostly having an Old-School Dogfight with each other.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: Demon lore is a science in this world and demonists are scientists who require electrical equipment for their endeavors. Crake is astonished when he discovers a "magician" using demonic beings through a drug-induced trance.
  • That Man Is Dead: Silo was a rebel leader who's got an uncontrollable temper and a hate for the Samarlan and Dak. After doing one last job for the rebels, he realizes he no longer feels he belongs with the rebels and doesn't hate the Dak and Samarlan anymore. At the end of the series, Trinica declares her pirate queen dead and joins the crew permanently.
  • Villain: Exit, Stage Left: The Ketty Jay and the Delerium Trigger, whenever they are involved in a fight between the good guys and the book's villains. Because, well, if they stick around, someone might try to arrest them.
  • Worthy Opponent: Trinica Dracken, "Death's Whore", the captain of the Delirium Trigger, and the biggest name in outright piracy in these skies.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The Ketty Jay crew gets this quite a few times, Darien Frey is responsible for the murder of the Archduke's son while Ashua was spying for what were actually the Sammies and nearly got the crew hanged for treason.
  • Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys?: The Century Knights are outfitted by the Archduke and his secret daemonists. One of these daemonists, Morben Kyne is also an active warrior for the Century Knights and he provided about half of their special equipment including X-Ray Vision goggles, enemy-seeking demon bullets and an army of golems! Crake has a similar role for the Ketty Jay though he's not nearly so prolific.

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