Chris Wooding, The Black Lung Captain, ISBN 9780575085183, Gollancz, September 2010. US edition, ISBN 9780345522504, Spectra, July 2011.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
This review will contain spoilers.
First published in the UK in 2010, and re-released this summer for the US market, The Black Lung Captain is a tale of airships and pirates, double-crosses and ne’er-do-wells, Cool Shit™ and banter, and a truly impressive amount of BOOM.
It’s hard to make a dishonest living these days. Darian Frey, rakehell captain of the airship Ketty Jay and her small and highly dysfunctional crew of alcoholics, terminal screw-ups, and people with nowhere else to go, is down on his luck – again. After an attempt to rob an orphanage ends in dismal failure, the prospect of a crashed airship laden with treasures from a lost civilisation is an opportunity too good to be missed.
As it turns out, the job that Harvin Grist, the brutal, cigar-smoking captain of the Storm Dog, offers Frey is also an opportunity too good to be true. The airship lies in the heart of a jungle island inhabited by ferociously deadly beasts and its cargo is something infinitely more dangerous than any mere treasure. A lot of people are willing to kill for that cargo. Not all of them are strictly human. Double-crossed by Grist and compelled to join forces with his former nemesis and one-time lover, notorious pirate queen Trinica Dancken, it will take all of Frey’s considerable skill at lying, cheating, stealing and shooting just to keep himself and his crew alive.
The Black Lung Captain takes up where Retribution Falls left off. You could read and enjoy it just fine without first having read its predecessor, but I suspect you’d lose some of the context for the character growth of Frey’s crew – the wanted daemonist Grayther Crake, the navigator Jez (who hides a dangerous secret from the rest of the world), Malvery the alcoholic surgeon, Silo the engineer, the flyboy Pinn and the terrified pilot Harkins, and the golem Bess – as well as for Frey’s own personal growth. The hard, shallow man whom the reader met at the start of Retribution Falls becomes at least a little more complex, and a lot more likeable, in the course of his adventures.
There are three main emotional arcs which build to the conclusion of The Black Lung Captain. Grayther Crake, the daemonist, has to go through a dark night of the soul in which he comes to terms with the consequences of the crime which initially drove him to Frey’s company of rogues. Jez must face her own dark side, legacy of an encounter with the inhuman Manes in the far north. And Frey?
Frey has to face up to his past with Trinica Dancken, and find a way to answer a very pressing question: What will I leave behind?
There’s a lot to like in The Black Lung Captain, and lots of interesting detail hiding in the background. Daemonism; the recent history of this world of airships and politics, pirates and Century Knights. The characters; well-drawn, rounded people, all of them with murky pasts. The way Wooding hooks you in from the first page and just keeps racing along, one dogfight, gunfight, double-triple-cross and piece of snarky banter after another.
The final showdown is stunningly tense and practically cinematic in scope, and Wooding pulls off a brilliant dénouement. This is an excellent book, magnificently freebooting and full of exuberant fun. I can’t recommend it highly enough.