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.
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