Johannes Cabal the Detective
by Jonathan L. HowardJohannes Cabal's line of work takes him to the strangest places. Dungeons, crypts, and even the depths of Hell itself are all in a day's work for our busy necromancer. But what we don't expect is to find him dining with the upper crust in the perfect setting for a cosy mystery. This anti-hero gets about.
Cabal has gone to Mikarvia, a petty and backward state in a version of Europe that never was, to steal a rare book. Whilst Johannes Cabal The Necromancer was vague about time and place, in this novel the maps and illustrations leave readers in no doubt that the 19th century geography, history and technology aren't going to follow our rules. This novel is more overtly steampunk than its precursor.
After getting caught attempting to steal the Principia Necromantica Cabal is thrown into a dungeon and left to await execution. But when the Mirkarvian emperor dies Cabal is called in to resurrect him in time for a vital speech. The necromancer seizes the opportunity to escape from the politically unstable country. He boards the Princess Hortense, a newly-built luxury airship, disguised as a member of the civil service. All he need do to make good his getaway is keep his head down and remain in character so that the other passengers don't guess his true identity. However when a passenger goes missing from a locked room Cabal suspects murder, and he's forced to turn detective in order to uncover the killer before the death toll rises any higher.
Stuck in a claustrophobic airship in the company of a bunch of oddballs and toffs Cabal is at his acerbic best as he struggles to maintain his disguise. He's delightfully misanthropic and supercilious. Cabal's bleak view of humanity is often hilarious.
The mystery is cleverly set up, with red herrings and baffling twists galore. It takes place against a backdrop of intrigue and upheaval in countries which never existed yet which seem oddly familiar. The story features flying machines which seem to operate as much by magic as by science, a stuffy upper-class setting rife with murder and brandy swigged by the bucketful, heel-clicking military types easily distracted by notions of honour, and a necromancer who believes himself a scientist. It's barmy, but it works.
Second novels can be problematic. Whilst an author can write the first one almost at leisure, taking years if necessary to get the wording right, to polish the plot and knock the characters into shape, second novels are usually written to a deadline, as this one was. So I had no reason to expect this sequel to be even better than that steamalicious first book. Yet it is.
12th July 2010
Review © Ros Jackson