So here’s the thing about Johannes Cabal; he’s more of a force of nature or a plot device than an actual character, and that’s actually just fine by me. If you’ve read the first volumes in this series (and if you haven’t, then hit the Back button on your browser now, or forever hold your peace) then you know that Cabal did not become a necromancer by personal choice as he would see it. Rather, he was in love, with a fiancée, but unfortunately for the both of them she drowned in a freak accident. Most people would consider this tragic and unfair and slowly go about their lives. Cabal isn’t most people, and considers it a personal affront. He therefore set out to restore his dead love, and not just as some sort of shambling horror or partial simulacra, but full body and soul resurrection. He doesn’t let the fact that this is an affront to God and nature stop him, or even the fact that it may be impossible. And in service of this goal, he is prepared to do absolutely anything, anything at all. He’s also smart and cunning enough to outwit the people that propose to stop him from doing these things.
Someone like that can be a great character, but someone with such insane drive and no social skills needs a good foil. In the first book, the foil was his cheerful, people-pleasing brother Horst, who had unfortunately been turned into a vampire as the result of an early mistake made by Johannes. Horst was willing to help Johannes up to a point – but past that point his own conscience prevented him from allowing Johannes to damn the innocent, and he disrupted Johannes’ deal with the devil at the cost of his own life. Death. Undeath? Whatever. In the second book, the foil position was taken by Miss Barrow, who also had a strong code of morals and who found Johannes inexplicable, without any romance.
The third book was lacking a really good person for Johannes to play against; he was with three pretty non-descript dudes who I can’t really remember all that well at this point, although I do believe one was eventually eaten by cats and the third wasn’t really a man at all. Nonetheless, the end of that book ended with Johannes coming back from a slight case of undeath and into the helpful arms of a cliffhanger, who is quickly revealed in the opening parts of this book to be Horst, restored to life. Or undeath? Either way, still a vampire.
This is a great start, which I strongly approve of. This was a good development since it not only provided a good foil for Johannes again, but also looked like it was going to be another genre shift for the series; the first being a dark supernatural comedy, the second a steampunk mystery, the third a Lovecraft pastiche complete with Nyarlathotep appearance. So Horst got started telling his story about how it is that he came to be alive again – undead again – okay, let’s just ignore that from now on - and how he got to be there in Johannes’ garden.
We find out that he was raised by a mysterious cabal (lower case, meaning conspiracy, sorry for any confusion) who’s trying to raise various supernatural horrors and found a homeland for them. They’ve got a necromancer of their own and a bunch of lycanthropes; they want Horst to raise some vampires for them for elite soldiers and officers, as well as to be a commander himself. There’s also a mysterious fourth person coming, with unspecified by apparently very unpleasant powers of his own. Horst sees himself as much more moral than the venture capitalists backing up this project, which is good stuff. There’s some really pithy writing here. And then it sort of continues for a while. And continues. This flashback portion goes on for over half the book, well over 200 pages.
Now, I’ve said before that I don’t mind long books, and I don’t mind long exposition, but I have to admit that I was ready for this particular flashback to be over long before it actually was. As Johannes points out, Horst is sitting right there, so he clearly doesn’t die. It’s pretty hard to have dramatic tension when you know that Horst is going to escape from his travails, although I will admit that the side characters Horst runs into are varied and interesting, and the travails are extra-intense in spots. Anyway, Horst finally wraps it up and asks Johannes for help.
This is generally not an excellent plan, since Johannes and “helpful” don’t belong even in the same area code. But in this case Johannes is willing to go along with it, since 1) he actually does like Horst, probably about as much as he can like anyone, and is willing to do him a solid; and 2) Horst believes that one of the people involved in this evil plot is another necromancer by the name of Rufus Maleficarus, whom Johannes believed he had killed some time ago. I guess with necromancers it doesn’t always stick, and in any event, Johannes decides that he must finish off this guy again, if indeed it really is him.
Without the risk of getting too spoilery, it also turns out that the actual brains behind this particular evil plot wants revenge against Johannes himself, and the explanation as to who it was and why is absolutely the comic highlight of the novel. Horst, the people person, figures it out first; Johannes is puzzled as to why this individual would want revenge against him. After all, Johannes was clearly acting in self defense when he shot the person’s father, and there’s no reason for anyone to get all put out about a clear case of self defense, especially when the person was standing right there at the time and could witness the whole thing for themselves. And certainly they wouldn’t have had any reasonable expectation that Johannes would have later attempted to save their life from a deadly situation Johannes caused, since they didn’t have that kind of relationship. Horst understands it all perfectly well, but doesn’t bother to explain it.
If the whole book had been written to that standard I would have loved it and said it was the best book of the year and slept with it under my pillow to absorb the good mojo and all that. Unfortunately it isn’t; the last half once Johannes actually enters the picture again goes off the rails somewhat, since it violates one of the rules of fiction – if there’s a plan then things can’t go according to plan. Johannes makes plans, and then things work out pretty well. He defeats a villain with basically no effort whatsoever, although Horst does have a little difficulty with his situation.
The title really does say it; this book is really about the brothers Cabal (incidentally, and not something I really mention much, providing really fantastic cover art), and although there are some potentially interesting side characters, they don’t really get enough page time to really shine. I really liked the all-girl traveling steampunk airship squadron, and would have been interested to know more about them; the heads of various anti-occult secret societies were also interesting enough.
This whole book is basically a setup for the fifth volume – although Johannes is really smart and cagy, it appears that he has finally fallen for a trap this time, a very, very ingenious meta-trap prepared by his most fiendish rival of all. And that part is great, since I don’t mind the smooth sailing if it’s all part of the villain’s scheme. But I want to see the payoff, dammit. I really liked parts of this book and I think I like where it’s going, but I wanted it to get there already. If it needed to be 800 pages long, fine, I’ll stay up late. I’ve been greatly appreciative of the genre-bending efforts of the series so far, but if it’s going to become a serial adventure which always ends on a cliffhanger, I may not go along for the ride.