Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A young man, burdened with a tragic past and daddy issues, wanders into a mysterious cave. At his side, a companion implores our hero to remember “that you hold my fate in your hands” (p. 234). The presence of magic—both of the literal and of the happening-way-too-fast romance variety—fills the air. Our explorers descend, drawn by something. The cave opens into a cavern, filled with “crystal pillars in the center of the room, reaching powerfully from the ground to the ceiling” (p. 239). There is a pool—into which, naturally, our hero must descend. Once safely ensconced in the cool waters of destiny, the visions begin: Prophecy! Death! Riddles from a mysterious ghostly woman! And the Choice: “You’re treading the way of heroes, Lian, but you have to decide for yourself if you want to become one” (p. 244). Now awakened to his thematic potential, our hero, Lian, exits the cave. Emboldened, perhaps, yet still confused—left whispering to himself “so many questions” before rejoining the Quest (p. 246).
This particular cave incident happens not quite midway through The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but late in Bernd Perplies’s Black Leviathan (translated from German by Lucy Van Cleef). While trying to be many things, Perplies’s novel is solidly encased in the conventions of both fantasy and storytelling writ large—such that its plot, characters, and themes become predictable. One could argue that this is Perplies’s intent, that he’s purposefully placing his narrative on the Hero’s Journey stage, perhaps as a method of commentary, a subversion, and/or interrogation of dominant ideologies within the comfort of the familiar. The back-cover copy promises the following, after all: “Moby-Dick unfolds in a world of dragon hunters in this epic revenge fantasy.” So we know we’re entering a text built upon epic-flavored fantasy, the always-satisfying revenge tale, and that romantic story between a white whale and an insane ship captain. All very familiar, yet still full of potential.
Unfortunately, Perplies’s text is short on insightful commentary or engagement with these narrative models, opting instead to simply travel these well-trodden roads at the safest speed. Despite my disappointment with its execution, however, there is still fun to be had with Black Leviathan, and I’d argue that the novel accomplishes what it’s trying to achieve (Moby-Dick but with dragons), if only at a surface level. In many ways this novel is a poster child for the “fun” read: thrilling action sequences, characters whose motivations are crystal clear, a black-and-white world, and enough fantasy trappings to effectively transport you to another realm. But for a novel that so overtly aligns itself with Moby-Dick, I simply wanted more.
So the story. We open with our Ahab stand-in, Adaron, a jäger captain extraordinaire on the prowl for dragons. Jägers are the whalers of the Cloudmere; they’re dragon hunters, in other words. As in Perplies’s source text, this world and its economy are fueled by hunted, processed, and sold dragons, which are caught and harvested in the skies. Ships are borne aloft through the unexplained magic of kyrillian crystals, small stones “which held powerful magical properties that propelled them upward when not enclosed by heavy metal” (p. 14). Dragon hunters sail their crystal-powered ships through an expanse of charted (and uncharted) skies called the Cloudmere, complete with floating islands which are populated, of course, by a variety of dragons. In our prologue, Adaron hunts alongside his love, Enora, but a fateful encounter with Gargantuan (that’s our Great White Whale analogue) robs him of his companion, most of his crew, and, eventually, his sanity. “Vengeance!” Adaron vows. “You, Gargantuan, shall meet my wrath for what you have done. I will hunt you, you beast, to the gateway of the dark realm at the end of world” (p. 29). And we’re off.
Flash-forward almost twenty years to Lian, a “kyrillian carver” with dreams of adventure who is held back only by his devotion to his drunken, disgraced, former-jäger-legend father, Lonjar Draksmasher. When Draksmasher falls in with the wrong crowd, it’s up to Lian to save him. Armed with the family spear (tinged with ambiguous magical energy), he sets out to rescue his father, killing along the way many people, including the son of the local gang leader. Despite his bravery, Lian is unable to rescue Draksmasher and must now run away before the gang leader decides to seek revenge for the death of his son. Why not join some local dragon hunters? Alongside childhood friend Canzo, that’s exactly what he does, enlisting aboard the crew of the Carryola, a ship captained by none other than Adaron. Destinies collide. Just before setting sail, Lian and Canzo are issued an ominous warning from a random old man: “That ship is cursed, and Captain Adaron is cursed. Mark my words. Death will befall any who answers the Carryola’s call” (p. 90). But nobody has time for old men and their prophecies. Adventure awaits!
From here the novel plays out episodically, each chapter a more-or-less self-contained adventure or happening that occurs during the Carryola’s voyage. Floating cities are visited, storms are weathered, dragons are hunted, mutinies are squashed, friendships are forged with the motley crew, and so on. And of course all builds towards the final confrontation between Adaron and Gargantuan, in which Lian must decide, as the ghost lady told him in the cave, whether he will walk the path of heroes. But what does it mean to be a hero? Does he kill the dragon? Spare its life?
If you’ve read Moby-Dick, the outcome is flagged from the start. But even if you’ve only seen Star Wars, you know where this is going. None of these stock elements are detractions as such, but they’re delivered smoothly and inconsequentially, like checking boxes. For example, when one of our characters (avoiding spoilers here) tragically loses a close friend to a particularly nasty dragon, we expect some space for sadness, reflection, perhaps some questioning of motives. Maybe Adaron’s insane quest isn’t worth our lives? Maybe dragons aren’t actually evil monsters, just hunted animals? While those beats and themes are vaguely present, it’s not fifty pages before our slaughtered crewmate is effectively replaced by another person conveniently inserted into the narrative, and whatever grief their friend felt over their loss is washed over and forgotten. Like too much in Black Leviathan, it all feels unearned and underdeveloped.
As I said earlier, however, there is fun to be had here, and I did find myself enjoying elements of Perplies’s worldbuilding and the pulpy fantasy action on display. Flying its epic fantasy banner with pride, the world of Endar is appropriately populated with a variety of peoples, cultures, and dragons. It’s an aesthetic blend of the How to Train Your Dragon films and Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002) in terms of worldbuilding and design, so your mileage may vary depending on how you like your fantasy worlds. Dark and gritty, or pulpy and colorful? Black Leviathan definitely hews closer to the latter (although there are moments of fairly bloody violence, which, in context, feel out of place). For our dragon species, we have Bronzenecks, Silverwings, Graybacks, Swingblades, and several other physically descriptive types. For our humanoids, there are the Taijirin, a winged race that swoops and soars through the skies; the dog-headed Nondurier; the lizard-skinned Drak; and the Sidhari, a desert-dwelling people. If you find yourself losing track of who is what and which dragon is which, there’s a handy glossary of terms in the back (because epic fantasy). Unfortunately, Perplies does not escape the fantasy pitfall of essentialism and stereotyping: the Sidhari are characterized exclusively as mystical hermits, while the Drak, according to our glossary, are locked into “a propensity for dishonest dealings,” and so on and so forth (p. 330). Here’s hoping that going forward (this is only “The First Journey into the Cloudmere,” because epic fantasy), Perplies brings a greater specificity within and degree of differentiation between the cultures and peoples themselves.
That said, there’s an imaginative playfulness to the world, a kind of kitchen-sink approach to the landscape and characters that makes it seem—justified or otherwise—as if anything can happen, which makes for perfect escapist fare. Spoilers ahead, but there’s a moment where Lian finds himself thrown from the ship. Remember, we’re flying through a vast open sky, so the prospects of survival are slim at this point. Yet somehow, after falling for what is likely miles, Lian lands (!), unharmed (!!), upon a spongy surface, discovering that (gasp) the Cloudmere actually has a bottom (!!!). Thinking about our open seas analogue from Moby-Dick, he basically finds himself in the deep, unexplored depths of the ocean, where creepy-crawlies hide. After wandering a bit, he finds an abandoned shipwreck that he hopes to scavenge for some kyrillian crystals to float himself back to his crewmates. But Lian isn’t the only one at the bottom of the Cloudmere. He’s attacked! By mutant zombie monsters! Perplies’s description here is particularly evocative:
The monsters were only distantly similar to humans. Their grayish skin was hard and gnarled. Their hands and feet seemed too large for their bodies, or rather, their arms and legs too thin. Sparse shreds of what looked like moss covered their emaciated bodies, and grotesque growths covered their hairless skulls. Their large, lifeless eyes had no pupils and stared blindly through Lian. (p. 186)
It’s all very ridiculous and inexplicable, but I loved this moment of weird horror, in which for a moment Lian and the reader fall into a more interesting story. Like a lot in the novel, however, this element is abandoned as quickly as it came.
Ultimately, Black Leviathan is a standard hero's journey set in a fantastical world, a riff on Melville’s Moby-Dick, but lacking any style of its own. The storytelling, the adventure, the prose: all are serviceable, but not necessarily compelling, challenging, or idiosyncratic. I don’t mind conventions or tropes or clichés; genre is defined, at least partly, by a set of generic expectations. I like dragons and flying pirate ships and magic and lurking ghouls. But I want these tropes, well-worn or otherwise, to be executed well, with a personality and flair I haven’t encountered before. I bristle at the oft-lobbed critique of “lacking originality,” so I want to be clear in my own comments. W.B. Yeats wrote in 1937, “talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man. I am nothing. Ancient salt is best packing.” In context, he’s pointing out that art is derived from models, from that preservative “ancient salt” of artistic conventions. So I have no qualms with Black Leviathan’s tropes, its reliance on Melville’s narrative, its strict adherence to conventional plotting. But I do take issue with its poor execution, its flat characters, its melodramatic prose, its dialogue consisting of bad heavy metal lyrics—“with every casualty, a dark veil of pain draped anew across to his soul” (p. 137)—and its painfully pandering narration—“a strange sensation washed over Lian as though, without even trying, he had made an important choice about his destiny” (p. 255). That word destiny occurs entirely too much in this novel, both in the narration and the dialogue. We get it.
Despite it all, though, the dragon chases are genuinely cool, similar in method to the hunting scenes from Jaws (1975)—but, you know, in the sky—and I found the world intriguing enough to warrant a vague curiosity at Perplies’s next outing in the Cloudmere. There’s enough groundwork laid here for some hopefully deeper explorations into the many, many mysteries this novel leaves you with, and I do love dragons.