Monday, August 30, 2010

Double Review: Jonathan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal series

"I cheated," Cabal said evenly.
"Aha!" said Marechal. "Finally! I should have you write that out and sign it, Cabal. Everyone from the generals to the sneeriest little putzer has decided you're some sort of master swordsman and that you bested me!"
"Well, technically, I did."
- Count Marechal and Johannes Cabal, Johannes Cabal the Detective

         In last week's review, I said that I was unable to recommend the book because the people I recommended it to would punch me. This is, thankfully, not the case with these two books. Johannes Cabal, a character best described as a  slightly-Germanic version of Edmund Blackadder with a medical degree and an interest in the occult* is nonetheless an interesting-to-follow main character. While not moral in the slightest, he still seems, whether for his own good or his own ill, to do the right thing, no matter the odds. While he may not be redeemable, he is at least identifiable with in some sense.

            The first book in the series, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, follows the plot of Faust if someone allowed it to collide mid-air with the plot of Good Omens. The title character, a bored doctor who experiments in bringing the dead back to life, has traded his soul-- supposedly for the power of resurrection, or at least the secret to it. What he gets instead, due to Satan's constant interference and his own lack of a soul, is widely-varying results and the means to create a zombie army. So he packs up his bag and goes back to Hell, where a perpetually-bored Satan decides to bet him: One hundred souls signed over to Satan in one year's time. To aid him in his quest, Cabal is given a traveling carnival he has no idea how to run and kicked back up to Earth. 
            In Necromancer, Jonathan Howard does not manage to create a static setting, or give us many glimpses of Cabal's world. What he does excel at, however, is characters. The cast is very distinct, from the perpetually-peeved Johannes Cabal to his always smartly-dressed vampire brother Horst, and even the minor cast of idiot farmers and wayward carnival-goers. While not always the best sense, you get the sense that the characters are multi-faceted and have motivations beyond "necromancer" or "barker" or "avatar of Satan". Even the non-speaking crow has a personality and attitude that add to its appearances. Horst in particular seems to be having the time of his life on every page he is on, save for the more dramatic moments in the book, where he is required to be the voice of reason. When the characters are singleminded, it's usually for comedic effect-- this is, after all, a dark comedy, and a British one at that.
           The dialogue is also something to be praised. The words sound natural and keep up the rapid comic tone, and even the narration drips with wit and sarcasm. One of the characters is described as giving "a smile many a spider had run from in fright", and another passage mentions that "...if Satan had to play one more game of Cribbage, he'd scream". As previously noted, the book is very British, and the usual tone and whatnot of British authors does run throughout. It's like they all draw from a very matter-of-fact, wry smirk and sense of humor well somewhere. In particular, the by-play between Johannes Cabal and whatever current  victim the book has set out for him is very amusing, always leaving you with the idea that wherever he goes, the necromancer carries his balls in a large steel wheelbarrow. 
             However, there are equally as many bad parts as there are good. One of the most engaging lead characters gets killed off by the end, and you will see the titular magnificent bastard very quickly throw anyone he can under the bus when he finds out how close and yet how far he is before this happens. While it makes for a wrenching moment, it's ridiculously unsympathetic in context, and that drops the tone. Also, the idea that we may be watching the villains of the piece comes far too late for it to be of any use, and makes it seem like the antagonists of the story triumph in spades. While the complete narrative is sound, the choices located within begin to perplex as the story wears on. Also, Howard was a successful adventure game author, having written the Broken Sword games, and it shows in one sequence involving a garden, and some other sequences that boil down to "Use (x) on (y)". 
               Another complaint, and this is getting to be a recurring theme with me, is the problem with time periods. I know this shouldn't matter in a fantasy novel, but it's a hodgepodge of steampunk, modern influences, and other various references. In one chapter they encounter a ghost from the Great War, and a few chapters later, they're tantalizing a kid with a virtual reality simulation. In a third, they're talking about the mechanics of a steam-powered organ as if it's a fairly new invention. All I am asking for, ladies and gentlemen, is a little bit of consistency here. Stop setting books all over the place and expecting the internal logic to run freely. It doesn't work. It never works.

                The second book of the two, Johannes Cabal the Detective, has a much more unified setting. Indeed, it seems like Howard has fixed the problems with the setting, but let the characters go a little more. Johannes, in particular, seems a lot more noble than when we last saw him, his good reasons for bad behavior gone and more genuinely good (or at least not-bad) behavior replacing it. The target this time is Murder on the Orient Express, not Faust, and there seems to be less cohesion as Johannes and his on-again off-again nemesis Leonie tackle a murder on board the Princess Hortense airship. The bodies fail to begin piling up, but the book has plenty of intrigue, and Johannes spends this one being much more redeemable. Also, it's worth noting tha the first few scenes, featuring the capture, arrest, trial, and subsequent escape of Johannes Cabal are the perfect introduction to the character and the more solid setting.
              It's just not as good. Howard has amazing talent in his field, this is true. And his writing has improved, as seen in his ability to build a moment rather than cramming it full of lines and visuals. However, if there were ever a person I'd rather see tell than show, Jonathan L. Howard is it. When his details don't have anything to do with the plot, they simply distract. Where before the plot moved along at a quick clip, tossing jokes as if they were pennies along an urchin-filled street, this one builds its moments slowly and waits for the best moment to spring the joke. In the opening chapters, a simple necro job builds and builds, things slowly going wrong, until finally it explodes in a glorious moment with one of the most hackneyed catchphrases the living-dead genre has to offer. What makes it perfect is not the punchline, but the way the moment is carefully placed and the various characters reacting to it. Characterization is still Howard's strong suit, and this is no exception, giving us a fascist count, a convoluted conspiracy that all the characters become annoyed by the moment they realize it exists, and new enemies and friends to seek out. 
                The other problem with the book is that it doesn't really seem like the out-and-out fantasy the first one was. After the setup of the first novel-- a necromancer battles demons both personal and external while trying at all costs to get what he wants-- an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery that would be completely normal were it not for a few ornithopters and two raisings of the dead seems...well, it seems like a step down. Considering the wild adventure of the first book, Detective seems tame. Its bulk is spent investigating an intriguing premise with an ending that will surprise no one who has read enough detective fiction. Even the locked-room mystery has been done before, and this adds very few new elements to it.
                 Another problem is the constant chemistry between Barrow and Cabal. Mainly, they're supposed to be friendly rivals. Maybe even the best of enemies. But it seems too friendly. The chemistry is too good. When he betrays her during the last third of the novel (it's not a huge deal) it comes so far out of the blue at that point that one wonders why Howard even bothered. Yes, there was probably a reason, but it was nowhere near as strong a reason as, well, anything else in the whole book. The motivation doesn't make sense. It's confusing, and serves as a contrived narrative device. Still, once the book's over that hump, it's more fun again. 
               And finally, our old friend Mr. "Use (x) with (y) comes back. But less of him. There's only one of those sections in the book, dealing with a floor panel that would have the most seasoned of adventure game players screaming about a pixel hunt. 
                 But is this a bad book? I would have to say no. As a murder mystery, it's great, combining the light and rapid-fire dialogue of a crime novel with the stodgy pace and methodical plot of a Poirot novel. It's Sherlock Holmes if he really, really didn't care about the murder mystery and wanted to have a nice airship voyage without any dead bodies turning up. And in the end, while it isn't the classic that the first book rightfully deserves to be, it's still a whole lot of fun.

                I started this review as a double because I wanted to compare the two books as one body of work. It is, after all, a continuing story. As of writing this, I have read all there is to read on Johannes Cabal, save for the two short stories-- "Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day" and "Johannes Cabal and the Tomb of Umak-Ktharl." I did not include these as I only have access to one of them. Both books are very, very good, but I'd wait until the paperback version comes out for the second one. Or better yet, inter-library loan it and read it straight off. I will say that if you didn't enjoy the Johannes of the first book, you'll definitely enjoy the second, and vice versa. Either way, these are good reads, and certainly shouldn't escape anyone's notice one bit. 

*Check out series two or three to see what I mean. It's all over the 'net, so it'll be easy to find. Like here, f'rninstance.

Next Friday: Outrageous Fortune by Tim Scott. Unless I can think of something better, in which case, that.

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