A year after Retribution Falls, Chris Wooding returns to the world of the Ketty Jay.
Captain Frey and his misfit crew are - again - broke, outlawed and unhappy. The ship is falling apart, their navigator is going insane, their daemonist is hitting the bottle and the ship's cat is regularly bullying their pilot.* On top of everything else, they've just failed to rob orphans, leaving a bad taste in their mouths and naught but lint in their pockets.
When a suicidal (but well-paid) mission comes up, Captain Frey immediately accepts. Dreaded island of terrors? Lost treasure? Not like they have anything else to do... One thing leads to another and, like Retribution Falls, the reader is hurtled across the land, watching Frey cross, double-cross, fight, shag, run and occasionally even do the right thing.
Retribution Falls, as enjoyable (and acclaimed) as it was, had a few flaws. Mr Wooding was almost too eager to unload his characters' mysterious pasts, apparently leaving little room for development. Similarly, the book's path from start to finish was very jumpy - the Ketty Jay leaping from set-piece to set-piece with very little transition. (There was also the matter of reading like Serenity fan-fiction, but I'm afraid the comparisons are still unavoidable.)
In The Black Lung Captain, the author hits his stride. Unlike Retribution Falls, this book feels like one, seamlessly-told adventure. And, with nothing left to prove (or unveil), there's more time spent on developing the characters and their individual stories. Instead of a confessional rush to unload dark secrets, we're treated to the real meaning of those secrets. Ok, Jez is some sort of vampiric half-demon, but what's that actually mean? Crake accidentally killed his young niece in an experiment - but how does that actually affect him? All the characters get that extra depth in this book. There's less frenetic grandstanding and, instead, some proper storytelling.
Not that, for a moment, Mr Wooding ever takes his foot off the gas. The Black Lung Captain is a madcap rush from start to finish, all too easy to devour in a single read. The dialogue is sharp and witty, the writing is clever and the adventure absorbing. It may have been published first, but Retribution Falls is the mere prequel to The Black Lung Captain.
*The Harkins vs Slag storyline reads like Terry Pratchett at his finest. Page 397 alone is worth the cost of the hardback.