The Short Version: Johannes Cabal, necromancer of some little infamy, successfully regained his soul at the end of the last tale. This has proved to be a bit of a bother, as his conscience now occasionally tries to make itself known. This becomes increasingly difficult as he deals with escaping a death sentence in a tiny Eastern European(ish) dictatorship via an airship – and then he’s nearly murdered while impersonating a diplomat while trying to discover who murdered another fellow. It’s all rather derring-do-ish and Cabal magnificently saves the day… despite dealing with the return of Leonie Barrow and the constant threat of being discovered as a necromancer, which would undoubtedly lead to some nasty death-like experiences.
The Review: Ah, Johannes. What a magnificent creation he is. He’s an anti-hero in the best sense – because he is a hero, he just doesn’t plan to be. As Leonie points out, he might do something wholly evil or something wholly good – you’ll never know which except that it’ll be solely for his own personal gain.
I have to thank Mr. Howard for keeping Johannes so complicated. Even when he does something like return to the airship – he isn’t doing it to save Leonie or anything romantic like that. He’s doing it because his own personal agenda requires it. And this makes Cabal a fascinating creation. How often do you get to spend some time with someone so completely sociopathic? He’s a high-functioning sociopath, perhaps best mirrored by Steven Moffat’s version of Sherlock Holmes.
The thing is… he’s also a necromancer. One of the coolest and most interesting ‘professions’ in fiction. There’s so much you can do with it (and some of the jokes about dime-store necromancers raising armies of skeletons and what-not were well-appreciated) and, for some reason, this book doesn’t really take advantage of them. There’s an interesting and somewhat frightening sequence where Cabal raises someone from the dead for a last scrap of information, in front of Leonie, and it has more depth and heart that much of the rest of the novel – because at his heart, Cabal is a man of mystique and magic. Things should be weird around him – and this book remains steadfastly not weird. Where the first book was a riff on Ray Bradbury and other late October authors, this book was much more of a Boys Adventures kind of novel – The Prisoner of Zenda, The 39 Steps, even the Holmes novels. It had swordfights (appreciated), high-flying adventure (also appreciated), and a locked room mystery of the most devious sort (also also appreciated) – but it felt disingenuous in some way. It felt like Cabal was being asked to do things that he, as a creation, wasn’t necessarily cut out for. He has been somewhat shoe-horned into the role of detective here, in the sort of way that makes you think “hmm, if you were to cut the necromancy bits and inserted a brand new character, this novel would probably still work just as well (although there’d be a bit more confusing mysterious unrevealed backstory).” And that’s the sole problem with the novel.
Other than that, it’s a damn good time. Gripes about the shoehorning aside, I had a blast getting back into Cabal’s world. I was happy to see Leonie return, older and wiser. She provides a nice foil to Cabal and her progress from book one to book two, although drastic, made sense to me. The aftermath of the carnival would undoubtedly have crystalized her passions and sent her into a harder-edged world than she’d perhaps have originally intended. I thought it brilliant. I did miss Horst, though….
As for the plot, it’s a decent one – although not entirely original. Still, there are tweaks to the story – and an absolutely wonderful ‘villain’ in Count Marechal. For some reason, I just couldn’t get enough of that guy. He was mustache-twirling-slash-Errol-Flynn-esque but also blustery somewhat “six-fingered-man”-y. Really a lot of fun – and his sword fight with Cabal was strangely hypnotic and awesome. The predictability of the plot doesn’t detract from the story… but it also doesn’t give it any special oomph.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I hate to give any novel so witty a rating of less than 4… (and I’ve rounded up on Goodreads) but I have to say that I was disappointed by the way Cabal as a character established in book one does not quite fit the plot of book two. Especially in light of the short story at the end, which seemed much more early-Cabal-like. I have quite high hopes for “The Fear Institute” and I do certainly hope it ends up reconnecting with the black magic of that first book. Even if it doesn’t, though, Howard’s writing is so continuously entertaining that I’m sure I’ll still have fun reading it.