The Black Lung Captain
By Chris Wooding
(Gollancz, 29 July 2010)
The first novel in Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay series, Retribution Falls, was one of my top five reads of 2009. A thrilling yarn of dastardly rogues, dogfights and double-crossings, it was a novel that succeeded on every level: the plot was finely crafted, the characters were well developed, and the world was vivid and intriguing. Of course, it helped that the novel resonated with wry humour and that the fun factor was well and truly cranked up to eleven.
Needless to say, my expectations when I picked up The Black Lung Captain were rather high - and that's rarely a good thing. When you pick up the sequel to a personal favourite, it's impossible not to compare the new novel to everything that went before. And more often than not, the latest effort struggles to emerge from the shadow of its illustrious predecessor, and you end up feeling disappointed.
Was this the case with The Black Lung Captain?
Yes. And no.
Fortunately, most of the factors that made Retribution Falls such a triumph remain intact. As before, the characters drive the story. Wooding explores some of their background details that were only hinted at previously, and pleasingly makes these details relevant (even crucial) to the unfolding events. These are all people that battle personal demons, and their individual struggles are convincingly portrayed. Their various relationships are also deftly handled - Frey's and Trinica's in particular is very well rendered, and their evolving emotions make for some genuinely touching moments. Wooding has a strong understanding for relationship dynamics, and this lends a very believable edge to those in The Black Lung Captain.
As for the characters themselves, most of the principle figures from Retribution Falls make a welcome return - including Slag the cat, who takes his personal battle with the nervy Harkins to amusing new levels (their entertaining escapades aren't just for comic relief - at one point they have a vital impact on the story, which is a nice touch). Wooding also throws some new folk into the mix as well, most notably the fearsome Captain Grist, whose gruff, almost affable exterior hides something altogether darker. The whispermonger Osric Smult is another new addition, and his unsettling appearance and personality leaves a lasting impression that belies his solitary appearance in the novel. Most of the characters that appear however are familiar faces, and with good reason - they're such an eclectic bunch that there's simply no need for a lot of new faces. This is borne out by the fact that arguably the most intriguing character is Trinica - charting her psychological journey throughout the book is extremely satisfying.
As mentioned above, Wooding explores various facets that were only glimpsed in the previous novel, and as the story progresses a number of revelations come to light that develop both the story and the world itself, adding a welcome sheen of intrigue to proceedings. The pacing is good, and as with the first novel there are double-crossings and some frantic (and quite epic) aerial battles, while the familiar sense of wry humour is present and correct.
Unfortunately, all these positives are undone to an extent by the plot, which is limited and makes for a rather linear storyline (it effectively boils down to Frey and his gang chasing from A to B to C, pursuing a nemesis that is always one step ahead of them). The odd well-judged twists that proved so delightful in the first book are this time conspicuous by their absence, and while the story does allow for some exciting sequences and satisfying character development, it's just not as gripping as its predecessor was (see, I told you the comparison was unavoidable). Perhaps more to the point, it's not quite as much fun either, though it's hard to identify the exact reason for this. It will have to suffice to say that The Black Lung Captain didn't enthrall me nearly as much as Retribution Falls, though that's not to say that it's a bad book - it's not by any means.
Verdict: Perhaps predictably, The Black Lung Captain doesn't match the brilliance of its predecessor. The characters are as strong as before, but the sense of excitement just isn't quite there. Perhaps this is merely because of expectations heightened by Retribution Falls, but it's equally likely to be due to the plot, which doesn't allow for the surprises that the first novel managed to fling the reader's way. That said, aside from the good characterisation, the events are supplemented by some interesting revelations about certain people and other aspects of the world, while the humour - again, as before - is well observed, with plenty of amusing moments to lighten the tone (which is perhaps a little darker this time around). In all, an enjoyable read - it just lacks the panache that made Retribution Falls exceptional.