Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard

Having read the first book in this series and thinking it had potential, I decided to take the plunge and give the sequel a shot.  I’m certainly glad I did, because this proves that Howard’s world building wasn’t a fluke and my intuition that getting Cabal off that train would be the best thing for his character was right.  This book was way fun, and in my opinion better than the first.

Cabal starts off this book in a condemned cell in some made up Eastern European or Baltic state named Mirkavia (in a nice literary nod, Ruritania is said to be one of its close neighbors).  He’s in the condemned cell because he got caught trying to steal a necromantical tome from a local library, and as it turns out, just being a necromancer is a capital offense in that part of this world.  This does seem a little excessive on its face, but keeping in mind that he does actually have magical powers and did in fact originally sell his soul to Satan in order to obtain those powers, and for that matter we’re told that some of his necromantic experiments haven’t gone exactly 100% according to plan, it’s perhaps understandable why the authorities have that reaction.  The account of his trial (he was not given a trial) is pretty funny.  In fact, the whole thing is pretty funny.  The omniscient narrator has broken free of some of the constraints of the first volume and feels free to tell the reader repeatedly what a dick Cabal is and outline his alien mental states, generally in a very entertaining manner.

Anyway, Cabal is approached by a sleazy nobleman with a proposition; the Mirkavian emperor was supposed to give a rousing speech but has unfortunately just died.  Since the powers that be really need the speech given, and given Cabal’s specialty, they want to know if maybe Cabal can make the emperor less dead for a while.  Although it gives him a stay of execution, neither he nor the noblemen really believe it’s a reprieve, although Cabal does manage to use his freedom to make his former jailers shave a large number of cats.  It’s only a matter of time before he manages to outwit his ostensible captors and escape, of course.

We learned at the conclusion of the first novel that Cabal is doing all this stuff because his fiancée died and he wants to restore her to life.  Not some shambling semblance of life, but the real thing.  What the dead fiancée thinks about this proposition isn’t clear, and it’s also not clear whether she’d actually approve of everything he’s been up to in his quest.  It’s symptomatic of Cabal’s character that he considers the death something of a personal affront to him, as opposed to a general tragedy.  As the narrator points out, Cabal’s goals are sympathetic if you overlook the way he treats people, the things that he does, and his general methods.  But he’s got style, and having secured the book he came to Mirkavia to obtain he’s now got to figure out how to get out of the country, which he does by drugging some civil servant who looks vaguely like him with a chemical that isn’t all that likely to kill him, and taking his place on a steampunk airship out of the country.

This is the longest section of the book and also where the “Detective” part comes in.  Cabal is only moderately interested in legalities (he’s usually aware that he is breaking the law when he does it, but never lets that stop him if he feels that his activities will be unduly constrained) but has an extremely strong sense of self-preservation, so when there are a series of shady occurrences onboard, he’s got to see if he can get to the bottom of events.  He’s certainly not out for truth or justice, he’s in it to save his own ass.

If the conceit of the first novel was to explore where exactly a diabolical carnival would come from in the first place, this one is a Victorian era locked room mystery where everyone involved has some sort of secret and they’re on a magitek airship, where the detective is an amoral sociopath.  Cabal’s interests basically begin, end, and move through determining whether there’s a threat to him and, if so, removing it, while not letting slip that he’s an infamous necromancer and fugitive.  Other passengers have their own agendas, from trying to get an army contract to sell pork rinds to smuggling to racking up sexual conquests.  I tried to think of a passenger who didn’t have an ulterior motive or a secret identity and eventually came up with two.  It’s that kind of story.

Also on board the airship is one Leonie Barrow, who (if you read the first novel) sold her soul to Cabal in order to save her father, but in the end didn’t have to go to Hell for various reasons, only very tangentially because Cabal felt somewhat bad about it and more because Cabal was one soul short anyway.  Obviously Barrow could blow Cabal’s cover any time she wanted, and it would make some sense for Cabal to surreptitiously “remove” her.  He doesn’t, and can’t for the life of him really explain why, although her resemblance to his dead love probably is a major factor in there somewhere.  On her part, it would make sense to rat him out, and she can’t for the life of her really explain why she doesn’t.  Not that this is a romance, mind you.  It’s not that kind of story, and Cabal probably wouldn’t be interested, even if someone were to explain romance to him, which they don’t.  It’s implied that having no soul, then being re-souled and having so long a period of obsessive devotion to his goals have done something to his ability to feel much of anything anymore, which makes some sense.

Howard really has a lot of fun playing with literary and genre conventions of a typical detective story, and manages at the same time to tell a really good one.  He plays fair with clues and the astute reader might figure it out before Cabal does.  (For the record and in all honesty, I whiffed big time.)  I like detective stories generally, I like dry wit, and I found Cabal’s responses to all the indignities that life throws out him to be very funny indeed.  I also admire sequels that have dramatic genre shifts while maintaining the same overall tone.  So really, this one was hitting on all cylinders for me.

There’s a third book in the series, available currently only in the UK, and apparently a fourth on the way.  With this level of quality and improvement, I’m looking forward to their trans-Atlantic appearances.

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