REVIEW: The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear (Zamonia #1) by Walter Moers

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Genre: Fantasy, Pages: 703, Level: Intermediate/Difficult

Book Description:

Welcome to the fantastic world of Zamonia, populated by all manner of extraordinary characters. It’s a land of imaginative lunacy and supreme adventure, wicked satire and epic fantasy, all mixed together, turned on its head, and lavishly illustrated by the author.

While I absolutely loved this book, it is not easy to read, especially if you are reading it aloud. The summary above does explain what the book is about, but it does not represent the writing style of Bluebear, a style that may be off-putting for some. Let’s begin with a portion of the Foreward:

I should be lying (and everyone knows I’m not a liar by nature) if I claimed that my first thirteen-and-a-half lives were uneventful. What about the Minipirates? What about the Hobgoblins, the Spiderwitch, the Babbling Billows, the Troglotroll, the Mountain Maggot? What about the Alpine Imp, the headless Bollogg, the Bolloggless head, the nomadic Muggs, the Captive Mirage, the Yetis and Bluddums, the Eternal Tornado, the Rickshaw Demons? What about the Venomous Vampires, the Gelatine Prince from the 2364th Dimension, the Professor with Seven Brains, the Demerara Desert, Knio the Barbaric Hog, the Wolperting Whelps, the Cogitating Quicksand, the Noontide Ghouls, the Infurno, the Ship with a Thousand Funnels? What about Gourmet Island, Tornado City, the Sewer Dragon, the Duel of Lies, dimensional hiatuses, the Voltigorkian Vibrobassists, rampaging Mountain Dwarfs? What about the Invisibles, the Norselanders, the Venetian Midgets, the Midgard Serpent, the revolting Kackertratts, the Valley of Discarded Ideas, the Witthogs, the Big-Footed Bertts, the Humongous Mountains? What about Earspoonlets, Time-Snails, Diabolic Elves, Mandragors, Olfactils, the Upper Jurassic Current, the smell of Genff? Mine is a tale of mortal danger and eternal love, of hair’s-breadth, last-minute escapes… But I mustn’t get ahead of myself!

I know, this is like the Bible, right? So-and-so begat Joe Schmoe, Joe Schmoe begat Jane Doe, begat, begat, begat. I’d like to tell you this is a rare occurrence in Bluebear, alas, it is not. And wait until Bluebear describes some of the inhabitants of Atlantis. It goes on and on and on and on… There’s a reason this book is 703 pages long.

In addition, the vocabulary is crazy. This isn’t even the most difficult of it:

Carefree Catalepsy: The muscular and cerebral paralysis into which one’s mind and body subside when confined to a dimensional hiatus for a considerable length of time. This state of almost complete physical and mental torpor renders one unimpressed by anything, even a plunge down a dimensional hiatus. The body is pervaded by an agreeable feeling of lassitude, the ears become abnormally hot, and the face takes on a broad, fatuous grin. This condition is very distantly related to the state of helpless ecstasy engendered by two 360 ̊ loops on a roller coaster.

Did I mention that some of the vocabulary is completely made up? Do you know what a congladiator is? You will after reading this book.

I stumbled upon this book at Barnes & Noble one day. Yep, actual, physical bookstores do still exist. Anyway, the cover was just so darned cute. However I did not purchase it. About a year later, again I was perusing the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Bluebear was on the shelf of employee recommendations. As I waited for my husband to finish looking around, I read the Foreward to my daughter and she cracked up; she wanted to read it right away.

We read together every night before bed and at about 100 pages in, I started to have doubts about our selection. I asked my daughter if she wanted to read something else. Mesmerized by Bluebear, she would not even entertain the idea of putting it aside.

Toward the end of the book, when everything comes together more or less, I figured my daughter would have forgotten some of the story and quite a few details; I certainly had and frequently found myself flipping back through the pages for definitions. So when a particularly distinct smell from the story made a reappearance, I looked at her to see if she knew what it was. It had probably been a couple of hundred pages since we last encountered the smell, but without skipping a beat, she responded, “It’s the genff!” “Yes, and exactly what is the genff?” “It’s the smell that comes from a dimensional hiatus. Like the one that goes to the 2364th dimension!” I was duly impressed.

Bluebear is a really fun book and we had a little routine going. Whenever there was an encyclopedic entry, I would read, “From the Encyclopedia of Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamonia and its Environs by…” and my daughter would finish with, “Professor Abdullah Nightingale.” Sometimes after that, she would guess at the entry based on what we had just read. For example, “Malmstrom, The.”

The writing is nothing short of phenomenal. It is a translation, but I cannot imagine the following quote comes across better in the English translation than it does in its original German:

When you breathe under normal circumstances, air is a welcome guest that keeps coming and going. Breathe in, and it enters the bronchial elevator, rides it down to the lungs, and takes a quick look round; breathe out, and it exits by the same route. In this instance the air remained imprisoned. After a while it seemed to expand, pressing against the walls of my lungs like a small, captive beast desperately seeking a way out. p201

Then there is the humor. Ah… how to describe the humor. Warped is not quite right. Have you read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? If you have, then that should give you an idea. If you haven’t, shame on you! Go read it right now!

‘With or without anaesthetic?’
‘With, please,’ I replied.
The last thing I saw was his fist as it slammed into my jaw. p497

If you are looking for something different, this is it. It’s funny, it’s cute, it’s thrilling, it’s suspenseful, it’s silly, it’s imaginative… it’s worth the read and it is best read aloud with your children.

Reviewed by Christina
February 14, 2014

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