By: Walter Moers
“A bluebear has twenty-seven lives. I shall recount thirteen and a half of them in this book but keep quiet about the rest,” says the narrator of Walter Moers’s epic adventure. “What about the Minipirates? What about the Hobgoblins, the Spiderwitch, the Babbling Billows, the Troglotroll, the Mountain Maggot…Mine is a tale of mortal danger and eternal love, of hair’s breadth, last-minute escapes.” Welcome to the world of Zamonia, populated by all manner of quirky characters. It’s a land of lunacy, adventure, and fantasy, all illustrated by the author.
Browsing a local bookstore, I set my eyes on a particularly chunky 703-page book that promised to deliver a fantasy adventure for the ages. Including 136 black and white illustrations, the cover claimed The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear was equal parts J.K Rowling, Shel Silverstein, and Douglas Adams. As an avid fan of odd, witty, fantasy books, I couldn’t help but make that my purchase of the day. I wish that I’d saved my money and time.
Instead of the witty satire, I have grown to love, this story is simply eccentric. Eccentricity without a point seems like a wasted effort for a book this long. I’m not going to say that people can’t write stories without a moral if they want to. I find that the horror genre is full of grotesque descriptions and gripping endings for the sake of the thrill rather than to always make a point. However, fantasy is different because it falls under the category of speculative fiction just like science fiction does. The genre was created to shed light on human nature, politics, philosophy, how we treat nature, etc. If I sit and think about the different sections of the book, I would agree that there is some satire, but it’s buried under pages and pages of garbled nonsense. If the message gets lost, then there wasn’t much point to the satire existing at all. That’s one of the reasons Terry Pratchett’s books are so effective, his narrative and wit fit neatly in 300 pages, and you gain a sense of what he wants you to hold onto.
Another huge issue with the story is that other than the density of the language and snobby vocabulary, The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear seems like it would be a children’s book. Had it been condensed down to about 200 pages, it probably would have been! On the flip-side, had the story been condensed and the illustrations removed, it could have been a relatively enjoyable adult novel. I’m not saying adult books can’t have illustrations, but they were just like Shel Silverstein and quite crude looking at times. Even the people who gave it 5-stars on Goodreads admitted that they spent a third of the book trying to figure out if it was for children or not. That’s not a good thing! At least not to me. The crudeness of the drawings meant I had a hard time taking the book seriously.
I’m not sure who the editor was, but I think they did a poor job of reigning Moers in and having him keep only the critical parts. The language is too high brow for a child but the illustrations are too childish for an adult. There is no way in hell that the language used in the story would have held a child’s attention either, so the reviewers who said that this was a book “for all ages” are full of it. It took all my willpower just to finish the damn thing, and it did get better. It ended.
The story wasn’t even funny. Through much of the book, there’s an encyclopedia in Bluebear’s brain that gives him information about the world around him. The information is usually delivered at the moment the author believed would be the most comedic, but that timing becomes easy to spot. Every single time beat for beat. Additionally, each encyclopedia entry is an info dump and comes in the final hour when it’s most convenient for our protagonist. There’s no sense of tension because (like with a Mary Sue), Bluebear always gets out of trouble with no difficulty. He’s physically strong when he needs to be, fast when outrunning danger, intelligent when all others are slack-jawed idiots, and seemingly impervious. He’s the best at everything without even trying. To top that off, when the author couldn’t come up with a “clever” way to get Bluebear out of trouble, he would just have him rescued by a character whose name is Deus Ex Machina. Can we get any more on-the-nose? It’s just one slapstick situation after another with no breaks in between.
Not to put too fine a point on the info-dumping either but a later section of the story has 15 full pages where Bluebear lists all the species present in Atlantis and gave full descriptions of their characteristics and places in society. We don’t see all those species in the actual story, but I guess that didn’t matter to the editor. Most of the species had ridiculous names that I couldn’t hope to remember if I tried making the info dump useless and annoying.
Moers also seemed to want to include the least amount of meaningful dialogue possible. I’m not sure if he thought that was a good stylistic choice given this narrative is in the form of an autobiography, but I hated it. It’s all telling and no showing which is a cardinal sin in writing. Rather than showing full conversations between characters, we regularly get paragraphs and paragraphs of explanations about what people said or did instead. That’s not interesting especially when Bluebear is telling us how someone told him a story before he regurgitates the extremely short version of it. Just write out the story!
The largest example of telling not showing comes in the part about Bluebear’s participation in the Duel-of-Lies where the reigning champion and a challenger take turns spinning outrageous stories for an audience. As a premise, that sounds amazing! Maybe less so when I tell you that one of the challenges lasts for 99 rounds, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. Instead of being told the stories that Bluebear is reciting or hearing, he simply tells us how the audience felt about a performance. He might say that a tale was funny, moving, or dramatic while giving minimal descriptions outside of that. Here are some examples.
“Set in the Zamonian Alps, his next tall tale concerned a singing horse with which he had jointly won a yodeling competition. He imitated the horse’s voice with great comedic accuracy, and his equine vocal impression went down well with the audience. Result: nine points- a high score, as usual.”
“I countered with a robust yarn about voyaging with a cowardly crew who were simultaneously frightened by sea sprites and a thunderstorm. To reassure my men, I said, I caught the shafts of lightning in my paws and swallowed them, thereby impressing the sea sprites so much that they fled…Polite applause, five points.”
I guess you just had to be there.
I feel like I need to explain the “lives” as well since going into the story I thought Bluebear was kind of like a cat with 9 lives. Meaning I thought he died and came back again in each section which could have been a cool gimmick! Instead, each “life” is just a turning point when something new is happening. You can think of it like when people say “I knew them in another life” to mean their past.
This book makes no sense because we get all the detail where no one wants it and no detail where we need it. What about this book has earned it an average rating of 4.26 stars on Goodreads when Mort only has 4.2 is beyond me. This is why I don’t trust Goodreads.
Overall rating: 2