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The Black Lung Captain
by Chris Wooding
Spectra, $16.00, 560pp
Published: July 2011

Having devoured 'Retribution Falls' (review here), the first in the Ketty Jay series by Chris Wooding, I leapt eagerly into its first sequel, 'The Black Lung Captain' and it may well be even better than its predecessor.

This is quality pulp entertainment. There's little, if anything, that's new in either of these books and we know not only where we're going to end up but where each chapter's going to take us, based on what's gone before. However, Wooding treats the material with respect and he gives us all the action, adventure and romance that it deserves.

The beginning is the same: Darian Frey, captain of the beat-up airship known as the Ketty Jay, manages to get himself and his ramshackle crew into a new mess and it takes the rest of the book to get them out of it again. The thrust is the same too: as they do so, each of them finds a little more purpose in their work and a little more humanity inside them where they weren't quite sure that it had survived the trials that sent it into hiding.

This is really what pulp entertainment should be about: not just the thrill of the chase and the glory of the catch but characters who leave the story a little better than they went in, even if they're anti-heroes the lot of them: smugglers, pirates and drunks. It helps that the world is left a better place for their acts too, even if it's not our world, because that's good enough to make any heart sing.

There's an agreeable amount of emotion in this one, to go along with the relentless action, as three of the regular cast in particular face the demons inside them, in one case quite literally, and discover some long overdue peace for doing so. In fact, I wonder if Wooding didn't overdo things a little, because a third book was always going to happen and some of the growth that might have happened there simply can't, for no better reason than it already happened here.

This time out, Frey flies into the depths of the rainforests of Kurg, so that Crake, his resident daemonist, can get Harvin Grist through a door. Grist knows exactly where it is, inside a crashed airship, and he has the explorer who found it to take him there. He knows what's behind it too and he wants it, but he also knows that the door is protected by a daemon that blocks traditional entry. Given that daemonists hide what they are to avoid undue attention from the authorities, Grist doesn't know where he can find one, except for Crake that is, for reasons that you'll know if you'd read 'Retribution Falls'.

Of course, nothing is quite what it appears to be, which is why this novel isn't 30 pages long. Wooding has his characters chase each other around the continent of Vardia and beyond figuring out what the mysterious object they've recovered really is, why it has so much importance and what ramifications that importance has. Frey would hardly call himself a hero but he's a good man, deep down, and he often does the right thing, even if it's for the wrong reasons. He was obviously fashioned with some Han Solo and Mal Reynolds in his blood but those are so obvious that I'd love to know what other influences Wooding had when creating him.

Another parallel to the first book is in the temperament of the Ketty Jay's crew, suggesting that Wooding found the formula that he needed right from the get go and made it work well. When 'Retribution Falls' began, Frey's crew were a bunch of individual failures but, by the time they'd made it through the book alive, they had come together as a real crew. There are good reasons why that bond fractures relatively quickly here, and more than one of them, but when all is said and done they're a cohesive team again in the one place that they can really call home.

If there's a reason why this book is better than its predecessor, it's the Manes. The traditional enemy of the Vardians is the Samarlans, or Sammies as they're pejoratively known. However they're just enemies, nothing more. The Manes are more of a bogeyman than an enemy, feral creatures that inhabit the very far north beyond the Wrack, perpetual storms that only they seem able to traverse. They don't seem to be human but they act in unison and are incredibly dangerous. Think zombie Borg. Fast zombie Borg. In this book, we find out a lot more about the Manes and what makes them tick, enough to realise that they are more original than anything else in the series. Of course, readers of its first book have another reason to be interested in the Manes and that story arc reaches its logical conclusion here.

I'm sure that true scholars of pulp literature could deconstruct both these books into the collection of old tropes that Wooding built them from. I recognise a bunch myself and I'm merely an aficionado. However, I'd suggest that there are two types of clichés:: tired ones and comfortable ones. Pulp fiction always works to formulae and formulae rely on the same ol' same ol' to work.

Wooding is clearly aware of that, having taken a very similar approach to both the first two novels in this series but, ultimately, it's his skill as a writer that makes this work. The trick, folks, which is much harder than it might seem, is to create a world that's familiar enough to be enticing but wild enough that we're happy not to actually live in it, to populate it with characters just as familiar and wild and to throw them through a heady combination of adventure, romance and growth.

This is the trick that the greats mastered long ago. I never get bored when reading Haggard, Burroughs, Sabatini, Conan Doyle, Howard or Rohmer, even as they tread familiar ground, because it's comfortable ground. That's how I feel about the Ketty Jay two books in. These stories are never going to gift me with some great insight into the human condition, but they're damn fine entertainment.

I have only one complaint for the folk at Ballantine. Why, oh why, are you using such a godawful font for the titles of these reprints? The Gollancz originals use a neatly fancy piratical font that seems spot on for the task; why change that for something so blah, especially on this second book where the title expands to two lines and looks even worse than the first. I honestly thought I was looking at a misprint where the real font had been deleted and someone printed the cover anyway, but apparently this was the choice of the designer. That's a real mistake. The cover paintings are gorgeous and the internal design is great; it's just that title font that makes me cringe.

Now, I must shift sideways into other worlds created by other authors, but I'll be seeking out more tales of the Ketty Jay. There are two more to find: 'The Iron Jackals' and 'The Ace of Skulls'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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