Monday, August 09, 2010

“The Black Lung Captain”, by Chris Wooding (Gollancz)

Wooding-BlackLungCaptain The Ketty Jay flies again

Darian Frey is down on his luck. He can barely keep his squabbling crew fed and his rickety aircraft in the sky. Even the simplest robberies seem to go wrong. It’s getting so a man can’t make a dishonest living any more.

Enter Captain Grist. He’s heard about a crashed aircraft laden with the treasures of a lost civilisation, and he needs Frey’s help to get it. There’s only one problem: The craft is lying in the trackless heart of a remote island, populated by giant beasts and subhuman monsters. Dangerous, yes. Suicidal, perhaps.

Still, Frey’s never let common sense get in the way of a fortune before. But there’s something other than treasure on board that aircraft. Something that a lot of important people would kill for. And it’s going to take all of Frey’s considerable skill at lying, cheating and stealing if he wants to get his hands on it...

Chris Wooding is a well-established author (having at least 16 novels published), yet I only really came across his work with the release of the first Ketty Jay novel, Retribution Falls. Having loved that novel, I eagerly awaited the release of The Black Lung Captain. As the synopsis is above, and delving too much into the plot will ruin the story for you, I’ll just focus on my impressions – mainly on the crew, as this is in actuality, a very human tale. The most important thing to state, however, was that I was addicted to reading this novel, reading it at any and every opportunity (much to the annoyance of my companions for the weekend), and was sad that it had to end.

The story itself is great. Wooding has managed to write a great premise, revealing only small parts of the overall mystery as the story unfolds, keeping the reader (not to mention the crew of the Ketty Jay) guessing almost up until the end. The crew are lead on a couple of merry chases around the world, getting into plenty of scrapes and tricky situations, relying on their wits and blind, dumb luck to get them through. The novel manages to blend so many elements and themes together – a treasure hunt, copious piracy, double- and triple-crosses, mysterious agendas, and a crew seeking to find themselves.

The greatest strength of the series is the cast of characters. Three-dimensional and sympathetic, everything from their dialogue, their thoughts and interactions with each other to their environment is believable. The banter between the crew members is still great fun to read, and the characters feel even more real and well-rounded. It took just a short while to remember everyone, but after I did (within a couple short chapters, really), I just sank into the novel and right back into the world. In this second novel in the series, Wooding fleshes out the characters and also rounds out more of the world, science, supernatural, politics and religion that go into making this a thoroughly unique creation.

We learn more of Cray’s “deamonism” and quest for redemption; Jez’s true nature and her attempts to deal with new revelations; more about the Manes, inhuman marauding pirates from the frozen north; and Captain Frey’s lingering feelings and history with Trinica Draken, the fearsome pirate queen who consistently foils all of Frey’s carefully-laid plans at every turn. Frey is also not feeling himself for most of the novel, and is more introspective and dour than in Retribution Falls. He seems, actually, to be rather depressed – especially when it seems as if his crew is falling apart and dispersing, leaving him with a sense of abandonment.

The crew all have their flaws, often sharing neuroses: abandonment issues, self-doubt, a predisposition towards the maudlin… On top of this, three of them have pretty huge secrets (none bigger or potentially more dangerous than Jez’s). Wooding really delves into the emotions and internal monologues of his characters, and it makes for an introspective and considered novel, populated by thoroughly believable and expertly-crafted characters. Even the new faces are well done and instantly feel real: for example, Grist, the Black Lung Captain of the title, is great and unpredictable, even though you quickly cotton on to his true nature (but not his specific plan).

Life for Frey & Co is not easy, not by a long shot – they are poor, in need of work and supplies, and their enthusiasm for their criminal careers is not exactly matched by their abilities. They are a true motley bunch, but one that shares a strong camaraderie and loyalty, even if it is fragile. Throughout the novel, Wooding builds a picture of the crew that is at once touching and realistic; they are basically a big, dysfunctional family. As Frey ponders, at one point:

“He was pleased that his crew were just about capable of working together as a unit nowadays; he just wished they could do it without all the bitching and bickering. But then, he supposed, they wouldn’t be his crew.”

The ship’s cat, Slag, continues to torment and bully Harkin, the Ketty Jay’s worrier pilot. There are a great couple of chapters, written from the alternating perspectives of these two antagonists, which were very amusing – giving you a good example of Wooding’s dry, slightly dark sense of humour. The inclusion of this struggle could have made the book farcical, but the author has managed to anthropomorphise this feline with aplomb, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Harkin.

To say I thoroughly enjoyed this novel would be a considerable understatement. It’s not the quickest read, but it’s paced perfectly – more languid passages are interspersed with intense, quick action sequences, held together by a great plot and sense of humour that runs throughout. I laughed out loud plenty of times (from the very first page), and shared quotes with friends and colleagues. There aren’t many novels I can say that I’ve loved, but this is certainly one of them. I honestly can’t think of anything I didn’t like about it. Except that it had to end, sometime.

This is a great adventure series, and even though it’s only two books in, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was destined to become a classic. It’s received quite a lot of hype from the sci-fi and fantasy community and blogosphere, but it is that rare thing: entirely justified hype.

Tale of hope, friendship, loss, betrayal, revenge, and redemption, The Black Lung Captain just might be the best sci-fi novel of the year. Utterly brilliant, I would urge everyone to read it. Now.

[For some information on the third book in the series, see Wooding’s blog, here]

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