Jonathan L. Howard — Johannes Cabal the Detective

I know I had read and mostly enjoyed Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (although it was a while ago and for the life of me, I cannot remember anything about it, and it was too late to grab it from the library when I picked up this book). Luckily, although it does help to have some familiarity with the first volume, this sequel can also function as a stand-alone. Howard’s world is vaguely like our own (there are Englishmen and pork rinds, for one thing…) but different enough: the countries the character traipse through are all fictitious, there are zeppelins and vaguely steampunk explanations for their structure, and of course, magicians have the ability to raise the dead (as a rather hilarious scene involving a newly revived Emperor proves).

Picking up where Johannes Cabal the Necromancer left off, The Detective finds Cabal in Mirkarvia, a vaguely Germanic country known for its rare steaks and heavy beer, caught stealing a tome on necromancy. He escapes, of course, and ends up on a zeppelin, fleeing the country, where he just happens to run into Leonie Barrow, also en route out of Mirkarvia. While in the air, a murder occurs, followed by more suspicious circumstances: after Cabal investigates, an attempt is made on his life, and other dangerous happenings are afoot. It doesn’t help that the sociopathic Cabal is being his usual self, attempting to stay one step ahead of everyone else and escape with his life and as much money as possible.

The plot moves quickly and the mystery is intriguing, and Cabal is one of those rare characters who is totally unsympathetic but yet entertaining all the same. It’s an enjoyable, fluffy book with all of the ends tied up neatly. There are certain little touches in addition to the writing that I liked; the summaries of the chapter titles (i.e. “In which Death awaits and a Plot is Hatched”) are clever and reminiscent of Victorian novels; the little illustrations accompanying them are also cute. After every chapter is a chart depicting some kind of airship and accompanying explanations, in period-toned voice, providing some context and amusement.

Issues: while Howard is very funny, occasionally I found myself wishing that he would give it a rest. There were so many bons mots and snide narratorial asides that it was a little too much for me. While I laughed a few times, I was also taken out of the story–I found myself putting the book down and picking it up again many times. Also, this might be a ridiculous complaint, but I counted at least three uses of the phrase “hoi polloi,” which is at least two uses too many. It’s one of those things that is an interesting word choice the first time, and becomes successively more annoying any times following. It’s not common enough to go unnoticed and it’s not uncommon enough to justify using it quite that many times. A minor nitpick but something that stuck out.

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