The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

“Bluebear” (for indeed he is a blue bear) does not know where he was born or to whom; his first real memory is as a cubling, tucked into a shell, hearing a roaring noise but as yet too young to understand that he is about to be sucked into the “Malmstrom”. Rescued just in time by the “MiniPirates”, six-inch-high buccaneers who come equipped from birth with two hooks, two peg legs, and an eye-patch, and our protagonist is off through a dizzying range of “lives”. Talking waves, hobgoblins who live off strong emotions, hypnotic spiders, Reptilian Rescuers, getting an education from a three-brained (and therefore handicapped compared to others of his race) Nocturnomath, flying with the “just-in-time” Reptilian Rescuers, tale-spinning contests that would put Scheherazade to shame, and more creatures than even Baum could think of.

And just think, this is only the first half of his life; chromabears have 27 lives…though I hope that Moers takes the time to develop a slightly more cohesive plot for the second half of Bluebear’s life, should he choose to write about it. Coming up with an entire population of fantastical fairy-tale creatures for this created world is half the battle, true, and Moers does well with that! However, plotting and characterization are the other half and then some for any novel. Bear, if you’ll forgive the pun, with Moers, and try one of his other books. Overall, I’m not sure whether they’re books for adults who haven’t lost their childish playfulness and delight in spiraling carousels of plots, or for children whose reading ability has surged far beyond their capability for tear-provoking plot arcs. (Do The Yearling and Old Yeller reduce you to a puddle of tear-sodden tissues? Try Moers’ books.)

There are a few reasons I can see why even fans of fantasy might not like this one. This is the first of the Zamonia books and so therefore, as with any ‘first book’ in a fantasy or science fiction series, the author must do a bit more world-building than is necessary in subsequent books written…and Zamonia is one of the more involved fantasy worlds I’ve read about. Secondly, so far as I can tell, it is Moer’s first book in any language; any new author must develop zir own authorial voice over time. Thirdly, it doesn’t help that I had to read the book in translation; “lost in translation” is a truism for just about everybody, and it adds an additional skim of awkwardness with even the most gifted of translators. Lastly, the structure of this book means it reads (at least to me) rather more like thirteen (and a half) loosely connected short stories, each of which might well have been developed into a novel of its own; as it is, I ended up feeling as if Moers was rushing from one interesting idea to the next.

…and yet…I liked it enough to try his “City of Dreaming Books” sequence of novels…but that’s an entry for another day. Indeed, if you’ve come across this book first and liked it well enough to finish it (and indeed it’s a fast read for all its length) but weren’t quite sure what to make of it, don’t give up: try one of Moers’ subsequent books. What to read if you’ve read all of Moers’ books? To remain specific to this book, try Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga books, for the wild swirling through a series of fantastical situations and creatures. Or perhaps Baum’s (and to a lesser extent Ruth Plumly Thomson’s sequels) Oz books for the inventiveness, but with a bit more plotting.

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