Book Review: The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear: a novel

by Walter Moers

On the cover of the English language version of Walter Moers bright yellow fantasy debut, The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, there is a quote describing the German fantasist’s imagination as being ‘…like J.K Rowling on ecstacy.”

Sometimes quotes sell books, and possibly this one did. After all, Moers debut novel (let’s henceforth refer to it as ‘Captain Bluebear’), though markedly different to the Harry Potter series, was released in his native Germany, the very same year the term ‘Pottermania’ first became widespread.

No doubt that in 1999, the wind from Rowling’s wizarding world helped fill the sails of the ship that brought Moers into the international fantasy zeitgeist, as readers caught up in Pottermania were, between Rowling’s books and Lord of the Rings movies, looking for something else to tide them over.

It should be noted early on, that although Captain Bluebear appears in some ways, a book pitched at young readers, it isn’t quite. Perhaps in the same way that much of the subtext of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels might fall flat on younger readers, so too might Moer’s tongue-in-cheek philosophical gags. This might be made further confusing as after the success of the book in Moer’s native Germany, Captain Bluebear himself, became a character in an animated children’s television movie.

Moer’s prose is clear with flourishes both pragmatic and erudite, though the magnitude of concepts therein render it quite exposition heavy at times. Imagine Tolkien’s obsessive detail applied to a narrative in an imaginary world that is for the most part downright bonkers, and you might get an idea. The narrative payoffs are a slow burn as you absorb Moer’s inexhaustible imaginative ideas, but when they do finally land, his wildly zany storytelling genius becomes apparent. There are laugh out loud moments here that rival Douglas Adams, Jack Handey, and Woody Allen’s Without Feathers.

So what are these 13½ lives all about? Well, the 13½ lives are in fact chapters in Captain Bluebear’s life. In the opening chapter, he is rescued at sea from the spiralling clutches of an enormous whirlpool by minipirates, who as it were, are precisely what they seem like: miniature pirates. Fortunately for all involved, Bluebear in his infancy, is also very small, so he can actually board their ship. They raise him, feed him, and give him a crash course in all things maritime yet he soon outgrows them and begins to sink their boat as a result, and thus he moves on to his next life.

Moers takes a basic, if offbeat premise, for each of the chapters and goes into a sort of frenzy in teasing out the oddest details, resulting in laugh out loud humour. A chapter in which Bluebear attempts to enter a mirage of a city by having four friends approach it from different sides at the same time was a standout chapter for myself.

Credit goes to John Brownjohn for his excellent work in translating Moer’s droll humour from the original German.

BookForest Verdict

The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear is in part, the literary equivalent to hot chocolate with marshmallows, and in part a testament to the generosity and scope of the imagination. The reading experience alone is like having your brain tickled and the deeper into the great yellow tome you get, the more intense it becomes. Moer’s orchestrates a blend of ideas that are at once, both eccentric and profound.  Embellished with the authors own quirky illustrations, this book is a treasure chest of fun and a genuine fantasy adventure.


The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

Ideas 5

Storytelling 4

Writing 5

Suspense 3

Intrigue 5

Magic 5
Total 27/30

A for Alpine Imps————————————————–