A retelling of Moby Dick set on an endless sea of clouds, featuring dragons, airships, birdmen, and enchanted spears? Sign me up! Black Leviathan is also notable for being my first German book in translation as best I can recollect. I have a couple nits, but overall I love the worldbuilding here and had tremendous fun reading this book.
Black Leviathan opens with a prologue that explains Captain Adaron’s vendetta against the primal, massive, and mythic black dragon Gargantuan (this story’s Ahab and Moby Dick stand-ins). Gargantuan killed his entire crew but one, including the love of his life, almost as soon as he had his own ship. To be honest, I think the book would have been better without this prologue. I didn’t not enjoy it, but this is my biggest nit with the book.
After the prologue (actually two chapters), the story shifts to focus on Lian. The airships in Black Leviathan are held aloft by crystals; Lian is apprenticed to a crystal carver. His father was a great jäger (dragon hunter) in his day but is a drunk and a shell of his former self after losing his legs on a voyage. Circumstances intrude and put Lian on the short track to taking up the mantle of jäger himself. This is a departure from the source material and not strictly necessary, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It is entertaining in its own right, but more importantly it reveals much about Lian’s character, and this is really his book (another departure from Moby Dick).
Like whalers, ships hunting dragons can go many, many months before returning to port (helpful if you have trouble on your heels). Unlike whalers, dragon ships sails not on the seas but instead on the Cloudmere, a massive expanse of cloud dotted with mountains tops that effectively serve as islands and actual islands floating in the air (many populated by a race of birdmen). The worldbuilding is very cool and works. Airships cling close to the Cloudmere so as to not make too easy a target for dragons, but can’t fly within the Cloudmere itself for fear of mountain tops and floating islands. Under the Cloudmere is a deadly mystery (but one we get a peek at in one of the coolest sequences in the book).
I won’t spoil Lian’s adventures. A lot of books today try to filibuster their way to the climax. Perplies packs his book full of very cool worldbuilding and white knuckle set pieces. I loved these. My only other nits are the ending doesn’t quite work for me, and in general the book lacks the thematic heft of Moby Dick itself. Which isn’t in and of itself a necessary criticism, but you set yourself up for it when you set about retelling Moby Dick.
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: Tor sent me a(n unsolicited) review copy of Black Leviathan.