Johannes Cabal: The Detective – Jonathan L. Howard

Last month, I read the fantastic first Johannes Cabal book, The Necromancer, and yesterday I finished the sequel, The Detective.

“Johannes Cabal returns in this fearfully funny and terrifically twisted tale of murder and international intrigue . . . five thousand feet off the ground.
When an attempt to steal a rare book turns sour, Johannes Cabal, a necromancer of some little infamy, finds himself in a foreign prison awaiting execution. A crafty plan — as horrific as it is cunning — allows him to steal the identity of a government official and make his escape aboard a luxurious aeroship heading out of the country. But what should be a perfect getaway rapidly becomes complicated by the bizarre disappearance of a passenger, an attempt on Cabal’s life, and an unwelcome face from the past. Trapped aboard with a killer, can even Cabal’s open-razor of a mind save him?
Full of twists, turns, sword fights, archenemies, newfangled flying machines, narrow escapes, and, of course, resurrected dead, Johannes Cabal’s latest eldritch escapade is a Ruritanian romp from first to last.”

While I enjoyed this book, it fell into that sequel-trap where, upon finishing, I thought: “it was good, but not as good as the first one”. I definitely liked the plot of the first one more (who doesn’t love a good old fashioned carnival of damned souls?), which is not to say that I didn’t like this one. I just didn’t like it as much.

One of the highlights of the series is the writing style. Howard impressively balances humour and seriousness, inserting jokes and quips in between mysterious cases of probable suicide and attempted murders. There are times when a joke would seem misplaced or ill-timed, but Howard seamlessly makes it work (dry British wit at its absolute best).

I did feel like it was harder to get into: not hard, so much as it didn’t catch me quite as quickly as the first one did, particulary when I realized that the plot was driven by foreign politics (I barely understand real life politics, you want me to figure out what’s going on in made-up countries?). With the first one, I knew within two pages that it was going to be GRRREAT, but with this one…well, I had high expectations and I was a little concerned that they wouldn’t be met.

I liked the steampunk edge, yet – despite the endlessly helpful diagrams of the two aircrafts – I was still a little confused with some of the technological jargon (I don’t think I’ve ever read anything “steampunk” before, though the subgenre fascinates me).

And, while I appreciated the larger role the returning character played (it was unexpected but well-done) – MINOR SPOILER – I was a little disappointed at the lack of Horst, Johannes’ brother, who was one of my favourites in The Necromancer. Plus Horst still had so much backstory left to discover, I’d have liked to see him again (I’m hoping he’s in the third one).

It’s definitely worth the read, especially if you read – and loved – the first one like I did. Even though the middle seemed to drag for a while (I found myself thinking “SOLVE THE MURDER ALREADY” a couple of times, but that could just be because I’m impatient), the unique narrative voice is enough to keep you reading all the way through. Especially that doozy of a last chapter! I may have started work 20 minutes late because I couldn’t close the book without finding out how it ended so take it from me: once you hit the 3/4 mark of the novel, don’t commit to reading if you’re planning on going somewhere soon.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about:

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