Captain Darian Frey has had some more reversals of fortune. Despite the encounter at Retribution Falls, keeping his beloved aerium fueled airship The Ketty Jay is serious business. His navigator is still weird and possibly inhuman, his daemonologist is still haunted by something he won’t talk about, his outrider fighter pilots are still a kid besotted with a never-seen-love-of-his-life and a man deathly afraid of the Ketty Jay’s ferocious cat. His surgeon is still a drunk. Bess is still a golem.
So, when opportunity strikes, Frey finds himself teaming up on an expedition to a dangerous jungle island, only to be lied, cheated, swindled, and hung out to dry. Like Mal Reynolds, or Bugs Bunny, you realize that this means war, and Frey is not about to slink away.
Oh, and he has to work with his ex-lover, the now infamous pirate Trinica Dracken, who has already double crossed him once, to try and get that measure of self respect and retribution back.
In other words, the usual life of Darian Frey and the crew of the Ketty Jay.
The Black Lung Captain is the second novel of Chris Wooding’s Tales of the Ketty Jay, the story of a fantasy airship crewed and captained by castoffs and misfits. As I mentioned in my review of Retribution Falls, the Ketty Jay and the universe it is in reminds me heavily of the role-playing game Crimson Skies, and the TV and movie property Firefly/Serenity.
In this second book, the allusions and comparisons to the latter are back and stronger than ever. More doings with the Navy, who trusts Frey not at all, and tangles with Manes. Manes, mysterious attackers from beyond the North Pole of this world, act very much like Reavers from the Firefly universe. Although mentioned as a bogeyman in the first volume, in this second volume, they take a far more central role to the plot. The Crimson Skies anarchic sky-based universe continues to appear to be an inspiration for the setting
Once again, the bright and strong spot of The Black Lung Captain, just like Retribution Falls, is its blend of intrigue, adventure and above all else, action. Wooding definitely knows how to write action, and keep the forward momentum of the story going. The story rarely if ever flags, and I was never bored with what was happening, as Frey and his crew go from frying pan, to fire, and back again, in a ship that seems to be held together only by miracles. And, yes, the bad luck that seems to be an unseen member of the crew lurks in this volume too, even when a seemingly easy score against podunk villagers is in the offing. Observe:
He spotted the turn ahead of them. Plenty of space, especially as they’d shed some velocity. He was lining up for it when one of the villagers pulled in front of him. It was another two-seater, powered by thrusters and aerium like all modern craft. In the backseat was a man with a rifle, leveling up for another shot at the Ketty Jay. Frey gave him a glance and ignored him, concentrating instead on the upcoming maneuver. Let him waste a bullet. Since the pilot was aware of him, he wouldn’t be able to match Frey’s sudden turn.
Frey banked hard, and at the same time the windglass of his cockpit cracked noisily, making him jump. Between the dust, the dark, and the crazed shutter pattern on the windglass, he could hardly see a thing. Yelling in fear, clinging to his flight stick, he pulled the Ketty Jay through the turn more by feel and luck than anything else.
“He shot my damn windglass!” Frey cried. He jerked his head about, searching frantically for an unshattered section to see through, and found one just in time to spot the crop duster flying directly toward him along in the valley. He yelled again, threw his whole weight on the stick, and the Ketty Jay dived, hard enough to send the crop duster shooting over their heads.
The book does try to provide more backstory and characterization to all of the characters, fleshing out the cast. As in the first novel, though, this felt like an uneven brush, and some characters come off better than others. A reader of both books, does have at least a decent sense of who and what these characters are by the end of the second volume. But even there, in some cases, I didn’t realize feel the characterization as much as I would have liked, and a couple of things feel like they are told to us, rather than shown. On the other hand, this book does happily clear up more than a few mysteries of the characters backgrounds raised in the first novel.
I was mystified as to the import of the title of the book. It is explained, but not until well into the second half of the novel and to reveal it here probably should be considered a spoiler.
The other weaknesses of the first novel are still there in the main. Geography is a little clearer, with a few more cues and clues to get a general sense of where things are in this universe. Even though this is an improvement, this could be better done, though. I would like to know how this universe got this way. Is the terrain so broken and rough that development of transport on the ground just isn’t feasible? Hints and cues from the text seem to suggest yes, but I can’t be sure.
The problematic minor character I alluded to in my review of the first novel does return, but the plot-line of that character again abruptly ends. While I think I see the convention Wooding is using in the relationship of Frey and that character, it doesn’t come off well in the modern age.
The Black Lung Captain is a perfectly serviceable sequel to Retribution Falls. I don’t think it exceeds its predecessor, though. I didn’t have any regrets reading it, given the action packed entertainment that kept me turning pages to find out what happens next, but in my opinion the novel neither aspires to nor achieves anything more.