Black Leviathan

Black Leviathan

On the surface, Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies is a retelling of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, where dragons are hunted by airship crews. The dragon slayers use kite-like craft to get close to the dragons so they can kill them with spears. I was interested in this story because it reminded me of my short story, “The Slayers,” which appeared in the August 2001 issue of Realms of Fantasy Magazine. That story also retold Moby-Dick with an airship crew hunting dragons and using kite-like craft to get close to the dragons so they can be killed with harpoons.

Perplies’ version opens when a young, cocky captain named Adaron decides to test his skills against the biggest, baddest dragon he’s ever seen. The dragon, known as Gargantuan, is not to be taken down easily. He attacks Adaron’s ship and kills the woman Adaron loves. It will likely come as no surprise that Adaron is an analog for Melville’s Ahab and he becomes obsessed with killing the black dragon, Gargantuan.

Skip ahead a few years and we meet a young man named Lian. He stands in for Melville’s Ishmael. In Black Leviathan, he’s the son of a retired, drunken dragon slayer. Lian’s dad gets himself in trouble with one of the crime lords. Lian follows, hoping to help and ends up killing the crime lord’s son, but not before his dad is killed. Needless to say, Lian must get out of town fast. Fortunately, Adaron’s ship, the Caryola is looking for new crewmembers.

As the story continues, Perplies diverges even further from Melville. I’ll try to proceed without too many spoilers, but essentially there’s an arc where Lian falls from the ship, manages to survive and is ultimately rescued by Captain Adaron in a city of the bird people. Elements of this arc challenged my suspension of disbelief, but I persevered until a generally satisfying ending that wasn’t quite as grim as Melville’s.

In the vein of many fantasy novels, Perplies creates a world full of assorted races. We have bird-like people, dog-like people, and even dragon-like people. One of Caryola’s slayers rides a small dragon, which strikes me as being like a whaler riding a porpoise or an orca. The airships achieve lift by the use of magic crystals rather than gas bags. Apparently dragon hunters in this world are good about using as much of the dragon as possible. Unlike the whalers of Melville’s time, they don’t take the ten percent or so they need and throw the rest away.

Overall, Black Leviathan is enough different from “The Slayers” that I see it as standing on its own. If “The Slayers” were fleshed out into a novel, I would have gone in some very different directions. That said, there are just enough similarities, I can’t help wondering whether or not Perplies encountered my story at some point.

The Slayers

Two events happened in rapid succession to inspire my story. The first is that I’d recently heard Ray Bradbury speak at the University of Arizona where he told about his time working on the screenplay for John Huston’s version of Moby-Dick. Soon after, I was reading stories for my small magazine Hadrosaur Tales and read about three stories in a row that involved a knight hiking to a cave to kill a dragon. I wondered how I could tell that story differently and I was inspired to imagine airship crews hunting dragons. When the story was published, I sent it to Ray Bradbury and he responded by saying “The story is very fine.” Even though the August 2001 issue of Realms of Fantasy is long out of print, you can still read “The Slayers” for yourself. It’s available at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00A9H1BSO/ and https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/58303

The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!