The Black Lung Captain
by Chris Wooding
Cover Artist: Raphael Lacoste
Review by Benjamin Wald
Spectra Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345522504
Date: 26 July 2011 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Black Lung Captain is the second book recounting the adventures of Darien Frey and the rest of the crew of the Ketty Jay. The ragtag crew scrape a living by smuggling and occasional piracy, petty criminals with no great ambition, but just like in Retribution Falls (the previous novel in the series), they find themselves in over their heads among plots, conspiracies, and double-crosses with thousands of lives on the line.
This book has the same strengths as the previous novel in the series; fast moving plot, good action scenes, writing that drags you in and forces you to care about the characters' fate. However, while emulating the strengths of its predecessor, it also manages to avoid being repetitious. Character arcs feel notably advanced, and the recurrence of characters and institutions from the last novel help make the world feel more fleshed out and real. While this book still suffers from some of the weaknesses of the original novel, it is even more of a fun read, and I found myself much more enthusiastic for future books in the series.
The plot concerns a pirate captain named Grist who employs Frey and his crew to join him on an expedition to an uninhabited island continent famous for the vicious beasts that inhabit it in search of a mysterious crashed airship of advanced design. Within the crashed ship is a sphere that makes use of advanced technology and is worth a great deal, but that also has horrible potential in the wrong hands. Frey and his crew spend most of the novel pursuing the sphere through a series of double crosses and setbacks, trying to make their fortune or at least avoid disaster.
One of the problems with the series for me is that, while I like many of the characters, Frey himself is a little too much of a rogue, and not quite charming enough to make me forgive him for this. His main antagonist is his former fiancÚ turned pirate captain, who he abandoned at the alter the day of his wedding while she was pregnant, causing her to attempt suicide and lose the baby. This is bad enough, but what Frey seems to be most upset about is the death of his baby, and none of this prevents him from, in the course of this novel, pretending to want to marry a young heiress in order to get information from her, only to run out on her at the first opportunity. By the end of The Black Lung Captain, Frey has gone some way towards becoming a better person, I found my dislike of him interfered with my enjoyment of some of his escapades.
Luckily, the rest of the crew do a better job of balancing imperfection with likeability. This novel does a nice job of exploring the variety of interactions between the crew, enhancing our understanding of the various characters by showing how they bounce off one another. Since this novel doesn't need to introduce the characters or setting, there is more time for fleshing out the characters and making them feel more rounded. There is also more time for gunfights, air raids, chases, and betrayals, all of them written with an intensity that dragged me along and made it difficult to put this book down.
Black Lung Captain is a fun light read, and it takes the time to build on the somewhat sketchy characters and setting of the first novel to add greater depth to the world. Also, the more I read about the crew of the Ketty Jay the more I come to care for their successes and wince at their losses. This book is good pulpy fun, with some surprisingly moving moments that caught me by surprise. I look forward to the next book in the series.