Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies, translated by Lucy Van Cleef
Vengeance is a tale as old as a time, and female characters have been killed in order to set male characters off on a protagonist’s journey since well before there were refrigerators (almost before there was ice). But it takes a particularly audacious ambition to use Moby Dick as an explicit inspiration for a coming-of-age fantasy set in a world where sky ships hunt dragons and one captain becomes maniacally obsessed with killing one such dragon. And for a little while there I was thinking Bernd Perplies, author of Black Leviathan (2020) (translated in the US by Lucy Van Cleef), might be able to match execution to ambition. But while the story ends up being relatively entertaining, issues toward the close and an overall surface-level narrative had the execution falling short.
The story opens with a tight-knit group of Jagers (dragonhunters) sailing the Cloudmere in search of prey. The journey is captained by young Adaron and amongst the crew are his best friends Enora (also the love of his life), Jonn, Finnar, and Ialrist. The last is a Taijirin, a winged race. The hunt ends in tragedy after the ship is destroyed by the largest dragon ever seen (“Gargantuan”), leaving only Adaron and Ialrist as the sole survivors. From that day forward, Adaron swears an oath of vengeance, vowing to the dragon, “You, Gargantuan, shall meet my wrath for what you have done. I will hunt you, you beast, to the gateway of the dark realms at the end of the world. Even if it is my very last act, I will find you.”
We then jump forward 19 years to meet young Lian, the 18-year-old son of a once-famous dragonslayer who has, after injury, fallen into drink and despair. For reasons I won’t spoil, Lian ends up having to flee his home, the port town of Skargakar. As luck (whether good or ill is unclear at the outset) has it, the dragonship Carryola is looking for some new crew, and Lian desperately signs on, carrying his father’s spear and joined by his best friend Canzo. The ship, of course, is headed by Adaron (older, jaded, grim) and while like any Jager ship they’ll be hunting dragons to bring back to Skargakar for coin, the prime mission, as always for Adaron, is to find and kill Gargantuan.
The worldbuilding in Black Leviathan isn’t extremely detailed in terms of long descriptive or explanatory passages, but Perplies uses a host of quick references to create a rich background tapestry nonetheless. Besides humans and Taijirin, for instance, we meet or hear of several other species, such as the Nondurier (“small frames, red complexions, and heads like hounds”), the Drak (“lizard-like folk”), and the Sidhari, desert nomads who “possessed magical powers to make wind and weather subject to their wills.” We also get some old legends, references to a deep (and deeply different) past, a visit to a Taijirin city, floating islands, a brief detour to the Cloudmere “floor” to expand the world, and more.
The opening scene is exciting, if a tad marred by the melodramatic language and the too-standard trope of killing off the girlfriend to precipitate vengeance. The opening few chapters once we shift to Lian’s story are also quite well done as we learn a bit about the dragon trade and how ships fly, see the complicated relationship between Lian and his father, get a sense of the seediness of the port town. Perplies does a nice job of shifting, as well, between tense standoffs, action/fight scenes, and more introspective or relationship scenes. The same holds true as Lian integrates himself into the crew of the Carryola. Adaron is clearly obsessed beyond the point of common sense, but he’s also surprisingly approachable with his crew. He’s inspired by Ahab, but isn’t a clone, and I liked how we see multiple facets of his personality even as we’re well prepared for the darkness that eventually comes out toward the end.
For the most part, thanks to likeable and interesting characters, a vibrant universe, and a good sense of pace, the story is wholly enjoyable. But things start to turn at about the three-quarters point. One problem is a romance that feels clichéd, forced, and implausible. Another is that Perplies starts to introduce a number of complications that don’t feel fully explored and end up creating an overstuffed narrative. Finally, the ending is a bit predictable, and while it’s wholly understandable, I found myself wishing as I neared the last few pages that it wouldn’t go down the path I was pretty certain it was going down. Lastly, while as noted on a surface level the story (for much of it at least) entertained, given its inspiration — a novel filled with allusion and symbolism, metaphor and philosophical digressions — Black Leviathan feels like it missed an opportunity to do more than skate along its surface, despite a few nods at trying to do so. A solid coming-of-age story that will carry the reader along happily for nearly 200 pages before becoming a bit scattered and predictable.