Johannes Cabal the Detective: There’s a Dirigible on the Cover, What More Do You Want?

7675981If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s horror stories. If there’s one more thing I like, it’s murder mysteries. If there’s one last thing I like, it’s dirigibles. You can imagine my excitement when I first discovered that the second book in the Johannes Cabal series was titled Johannes Cabal the Detective, the increase in my excitement when it was revealed that said detecting took place on a dirigible, and my final and greatest flux in excitement when the book turned into a Cabal-themed Murder on the Orient Express with the titular necromancer as the main character.

To the uninitiated, what are you doing reading a review of the second book in a series without having read the first book or review? That’s pretty silly and just asking for things to be spoiled. Things like the fact that Cabal survives the first book, is not damned to hell at the end, and wins back his soul. That should have been pretty obvious for any who realized that this was a series, but I digress. To said uninitiated (shame), Johannes cabal is a necromancer of some little infamy who sold his soul to the devil for necromantic knowledge. Unhappy with what that was doing to some of his test results (he is nothing if not rigidly scientific), he made a deal with the devil to get his soul back. This involved running a demonic carnival to steal peoples’ souls. As this second book continues with him as the main character, you can safely make the assumption (or read what I wrote 5 sentences ago) he survives and is successful. There, you’re caught up. You can read in my review of the first book here that I greatly enjoyed the humor, setting, and episodic nature of the first book but was let down by the lack of horror elements. How does Detective stack up?

While the storytelling style of the first book fit the plot rather well, with each episode telling the story of one of the more memorable stops on the demonic carnival’s itinerary, Johannes Cabal the Detective is much more a single story and plot arc, which once again worked well for the story it was trying to tell. Linear, well thought out, and interesting, even without the flavor from the characters this book would have made a fun and efficient (if not exceptional) murder mystery. The clues were all there, the murders themselves were confusing at first but elucidated as well as one expects in such stories as the tale played out, and the cast of characters was both well chosen and well written. I wish some of them had more to do than just die, but not everyone can see the detective’s grand reveal at the end.

On that topic, a stuffy germanic necromancer with a short temper and generally negative outlook on life solving the murders of people he neither cares for nor particularly likes is a story I didn’t know I needed until now. Cabal slots into a distinctly Sherlockian role with great aplomb, putting to use his cutting wit and scientific nature with snark and sarcasm that lands far more often than not. I won’t spoil their identity as it is a particularly fun reveal, but a character from the first book features as a main supporting character here, playing a particularly sardonic Watson to Cabal’s Holmes. The first book had its funny moments, but Detective definitely upped the game, and the hopes of a cutting remark or incredibly backhanded compliment had me turning pages more than any of the cliffhangers did. The fleshing out of this supporting character further was welcome and added to the comedic element, and I was glad for their inclusion throughout the duration of the novel.

Speaking of cliffhangers, there was a great deal more action in this novel than in the first of the Cabal series. Dangling from high places, flying crazy aerial vehicles, outrunning explosions, winning fencing duels, raising dictators as voracious zombies and inciting mass revolts? Oh yeah, that’s all there and more. When you consider that Cabal is, as a character, about as stiff and anti-fun as can be, he manages to get up to some of the most ridiculous hijinks you can imagine, and the juxtaposition of his character in these various disasters is both compelling and hilarious in equal measure.

For those of you hoping for a spookier outing in this sophomore novel, unfortunately you will be disappointed. While there is still an air of the occult about everything (main character being a necromancer and all), there are even fewer actual horror elements in this novel than in the first. Having adjusted my expectations somewhat after book one, this didn’t bother me as much, but it does still need to be stated. Howard definitely chose to go for more of a murder mystery/political intrigue tale here, and while it works (very, very well), my deep and eternal thirst for scares is far from sated by this outing.

If action, intrigue, gunfights, daring swordsmen and reckless pilots, dirigibles, and political unrest sound like fun to you, Johannes Cabal the Detective is a must read. It continues the story of the titular character in fine form, fleshing out who Johannes is as a person while taking the reader on an absolutely wild ride through the skies of a small and overambitious shithole of a country (Cabal’s words, not mine). I highly recommend this book (and its predecessor, don’t be lazy) to all readers, as I think it has something for everyone to enjoy.

Rating: Johannes Cabal the Detective – 8.5/10


This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – I Spent Longer Reading The Title Than I Did Reading The Book. No, Seriously, This Was An Unnecessarily Long Book Title

51hnqg0ylal-_sx331_bo1204203200_To you catchers of creeps, you hunters of haunts, you finders of frights, I bid you welcome to the Spooky Corner on the spookiest day of the year! Happy Halloween from those of us at The Quill to Live, and we hope you’re having a delightfully dreadful time. Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get to what you came for.

We’re back with the second installment in the John Dies at the End series: This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (henceforth referred to as Spiders, since that title is half a dictionary long). For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t read my review of the first book in the series from a week or two ago (shame on you), you can find it here. As a brief summary, I absolutely loved its take on horror and the human understanding of the universe, but thought that the childish humor and despicable characters may, understandably, impede enjoyment for some.

Shockingly, Spiders continues with much of the same. David and John are still despicable and relatively worthless human beings other than the whole “saving the world” thing they did in book one. A year has passed, and the town of Undisclosed hasn’t changed much over that time. It’s still a shithole, weird stuff still happens, and the “junkie scooby gang” is still deeply involved in the aforementioned weird stuff. The book opens with David and John getting drunk on a water tower as a military style convoy passes under them and violently crashes. They take a macguffin from the crashed vehicle, bury it in their backyard, and go back to daily life (as you do). Well, they try to, but David is attacked by a terrifying spider-monster that he barely fends off before it escapes and takes over the body of a police officer who was trying to arrest him at the time. This mishap leads to a few others and suddenly the town is overrun by spider-zombies, go figure. The remainder of the book mostly follows the split-up John, David, and Amy as they try to find each other in the quarantined town and, as a secondary goal, try to save the world (again).

If the plot sounds rather neat and tidy in that fantastic synopsis, that’s because it is. I thought there were some forgivable but frustrating issues with pacing and narrative flow in JDatE, Spiders felt much more cohesive throughout and really felt like one self-contained story. The order of the chapters and fondness of the author for pausing the action to go back to another character’s perspective from a few hours before could have led to some serious issues, but I actually think that it was well done and added to both the suspense and humor of the book positively.

On the topic of “things that could have really ruined this book but turned out ok in the end”, I thought that the zombie apocalypse in the town of Undisclosed was handled very well and avoided a lot of the traps that zombie books tend to fall into. As something of a zombie fiction fanboy (Link to my recommendations here for those who are interested), there are a lot of ways to do zombies wrong and, while that wouldn’t have bothered me much as I just really love zombies, Spiders avoids a lot of the major ones. The zombies are scary, gross, unique, and fit within this universe’s flavor of horror and monsters extremely well. I’m rarely spooked by zombie books at this point, but there were a couple of moments that really got to me. When you get to the garage you’ll know what I mean.

A possible major sticking point for readers of the first book, and one that anyone reading the review of its sequel likely didn’t have an issue with (or found a way to move past it), was the fact that the main characters are…sort of the worst. John is a flaky, crazy, meth-smoking junkie, David is an overweight and horrifically depressed manager of a movie store, and Amy is basically their conscience and one ray of hope for the two of them to not be so fucking terrible all the time. The dynamic trio is split up for the majority of the book for reasons I refuse to get into as I don’t want to spoil them, and seeing them interact with the variety of new side characters was a treat. While I love their dynamic together, seeing other people react to just how bad they are at being heroes was great and led to some alternatively hilarious and horrifying moments.

I’d like to take a moment, quickly, to appreciate one of the side characters featured in this book: Detective Lance Falconer. I am being intentionally vague here, as to go into any more detail than I do in this paragraph could spoil what is possibly my favorite aspect of this book. I thought the way his character was handled was fantastic and really elevated a lot of elements in the book. From his first introduction to his final scene with David, he was a constant positive addition. He really stood above the rest of the characters introduced in Spiders, and I hope he makes a return in the future, preferably jumping over a truck of some kind in his bitchin’ Porsche.

On the topic of bitchin’ cars and jumping over things, Spiders maintains the adolescent level of humor that was found throughout the first novel. Toilet humor, excessive swearing, sex jokes, and what would be sight gags if this was a movie are plentiful and unapologetic. If you made it through book one just tolerating the humor, you won’t see much of an improvement here. A lot of it was still pretty hit or miss for me, but like in the first one when the humor did hit, it had me in stitches. There were a few moments where I drew looks on the subway because I was crying from laughing so hard.

In contrast to the humor, the horror was on point for the entire book. Not only did we get a much better understanding than in book one of why people do or don’t see the various creatures, but the creatures that were added and how the main characters interact with them in various situations were absolutely fantastic. There’s a scene with a teddy bear that I am still shuddering about weeks after finishing. The mix of body horror and oppressive atmosphere, the tension reminiscent of watching someone walk down into a dark basement in the theater, and the creeping sense of wrongness that pervades Undisclosed were all handled excellently. I am even more impressed with how scary this book is when you consider how much of it is dedicated to being funny at the same time. I will be having nightmares featuring certain scenes of this book for years to come. That may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but it really is.

John Dies at the End had been on my to-do list for years before I finally got to it. I read This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It in one sitting the day after I finished the first book. It ups the quality of the first book in every way and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys cosmic horror, zombies, or creepy parasites. The humor is sometimes a little off-color and tone deaf but that is easily forgiven when considering the quality of the horror and how much fun the ride is the entire time. The Spooky Corner of The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.

Rating: This Book is Full of Spider: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – 9.5/10


John Dies at the End – No, He Doesn’t.

john-dies-at-the-endThe days are getting shorter, the temperature is fluctuating 30 degrees a day, and everything is slowly turning brown. This can only mean one thing: We’re most of the way through October and Halloween is fast approaching. Regular readers of this blog know that with Halloween comes…a SPOOKY CORNER POST.

Yes, that’s right. I’m back in all my cobwebby, dusty, half-seen-in-the-dark-of-a-new-moon glory. With me, I bring a review of a book that was released over a decade ago, John Dies at the End, by David Wong (pen name of Jason Pargin, executive editor of Now, you may be asking yourself (or me), “Why review a book that’s been out for a decade, one popular enough at that time to have spawned a cult-favorite motion picture?” Well, kind readers, because I’ve made a note to read it, and subsequently forgotten to, more times than I can count. Also the third book in the series released this month, jogging my memory. Without further bullshit meant to inflate my word count and pay (that’s a joke, Andrew refuses to pay me), let’s find out what I think about what will henceforth be known as JDatE (note that I am not reviewing Jewish dating services though).

John Dies at the End is a weird book, for a variety of reasons. I can describe it as: scary, funny, clever, dumb, enthralling, confusing, and unique each in their turn. It is essentially the story of a couple young delinquents who take a drug and start seeing shit. This drug, named Soy Sauce by the characters, does something to them that peels back the layer of normalcy from the world and allows them to see things as they really are. Based on the fact that this is at least partially classified as a horror book, you can probably guess that “things as they really are” means “HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT”. After taking the sauce and having the veil lifted, they go on an adventure or two and save the world…sorta.

Now, I’m a huge fan of cosmic horror. The idea of the universe as a dark and terrifying place occupied by vast, unknowable entities is one that appeals to me. In this, JDatE is extremely up my alley. The specific explanations given for how the human mind reacts to seeing things it has no ability to fully comprehend was, if not completely unique, certainly spelled out more explicitly in this novel than in many I’ve read. The idea that paranormal sightings (ghosts, aliens, demons, etc.) are really just your brain trying to wrap itself around something that’s impossible for a human to have a frame of reference for is really cool. Now, explaining why people are seeing certain things isn’t enough, by itself, to make a good horror book. Luckily, Wong/Pargin does a great job in thinking up some actually horrific stuff. There’s a decent mix of atmospheric, shock, and body horror, and I feel like when you consider how childish a lot of the humor is, the fact that the horror wasn’t exclusively gross-out body horror is something to be applauded. I was as creeped out at various points in this book as I ever have been by Barron, Lovecraft, or Chambers, and that earns this book major points from me.

The humor was somewhat more hit or miss for me. Before I get into any criticism, it must be said that this book did have me laughing so hard I cried a couple times, so when it hits it really hits. However, a lot of the humor would find itself comfortable in a comments thread, and while that’s all fine and dandy, it’s really not something I’m looking for in a long-form novel. The shock humor and childishness of it can wear thin at points, even with the understanding that this is keeping in character with the novel’s two leads, David and John.

On that note, if you’re someone who needs likable protagonists, or just protagonists that aren’t lowlife shitheads you may want to look elsewhere. John and David are not successful or mature adults. They do not become successful or mature adults by the end of the book. They are very much a pair of college dropout fuckups just trying to get by day-to-day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that by itself was enough for people to drop the book. Personally, I was alright with it, but it is something of a trope in cosmic horror/weird fiction for the protagonists to be…well…shitheads. The alcoholic and once-great detective, the journalist out of a job and needing a big story to afford his morphine addiction, the obsessive and immoral scientist: these are all standard themes in horror, and lovers of the genre will likely have grown a somewhat thick skin for bad behavior in leads. Readers coming for the humor, or simply trying out something new may not be as forgiving, and I would have a hard time holding that against them.

The one thing I’ve really struggled to form an opinion on was the pacing. It felt incredibly off in some aspects and incredibly on in others. The book really felt like three separate stories to me due to a few time jumps and narrative changes. It’s not bad to have the different “adventures” each feel relatively self-contained, but I think the transitions could have been handled a little better. They felt abrupt, and while I think that was intentional, they were still a little more jarring than I think they should have been.

When looked at as an entire package objectively, I think John Dies at the End is a solid book. It will be very hit or miss for people based on the style of the humor and some of the descriptions of various…things in the book, but I definitely recommend at least giving it a try. However, when looked at as an entire package personally, this book was an absolute blast that I read in one sitting. I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it highly enough to people that share my love of cosmic horror and sardonic humor experienced through the perspective of characters that have no business being the heroes in any story, especially their own.

Rating: John Dies at the End – 7.0 (objective rating) 9.0 (personal rating)/10


Blackwing – Making A Mark

51mvvrp6kfl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Today I have a review on one of 2017’s big debuts, Blackwing by Ed McDonald. This is the first book of the Raven’s Mark series and it has been getting a lot of praise, and a little disdain, from a good deal of people in the reviewing business. As such, I was very excited to sink my teeth in and form my own opinion. What I found was I agree with some points on both sides of the fence and that Blackwing is an exciting debut to a new series with a talented author, but it could use a little bit of polish.

The plot is a little complicated, so bare with me – I promise it is worth it. Blackwing is a harrowing grimdark novel that follows the story of Ryhalt Galharrow (get it because I said the book was harrowing earlier? Please don’t unsubscribe) as he makes his way in a dystopia torn by devastating war. In McDonald’s world two sets of god like beings, The Nameless and The Deep Kings, have been fighting each other for millennia. Ryhalt fights for the side of The Nameless, the mildly more sympathetic side who aren’t actively trying to kill every human – unlike The Deep Kings. However, though the Nameless are the only thing that keeps humanity from being destroyed by The Deep Kings, they certainly are not benevolent and kind rulers. The magics of both sides have warped and destroyed people and land alike. In particular, one of the Nameless set off a bomb to drive back a Deep King invasion that turned a huge portion of the continent into a wasteland called The Misery – killing a huge chunk of the population at the same time. While it is implied that there were once a large group of Nameless, at the start of our story there are only about four left. Ryhalt works for one in particular, Crowfoot, and is one of his Blackwings – apostles that feel something like park rangers that patrol the Misery against possible incursions. While the Misery is a hellscape one wouldn’t want to enter willingly, what actually keeps humanity safe from the Kings is a colossal weapon designed by another of the Nameless called ‘Nall’s Engine’ – basically the universe’s largest set of artillery cannons aimed at the Misery. Humanity must constantly gather magic and shove it into the engine to keep it primed, a task that leaves any who have the talent chained to the engine powering it until it cripples them. Our story begins with Ryhalt getting a message from Crowfoot that the engine might not be running quite as well as everyone expects, and to investigate.

I know that the plot seems like a convoluted mouthful, but McDonald has a real talent for worldbuilding. The world, culture, power structure, magic, and infrastructure of his setting are all extremely detailed and well fleshed out. Blackwing has a strong sense of identity that makes it feel like you are reading about a real functioning world – not a fantasy construct. It can feel messy, but messy by design not through lack of effort. Additionally, the magic of the book is both original and exciting to read. Humanity has sorcerers who gather light and turn it into energy. This is used both to power cities and Nall’s Engine, as well as in combat in a form of pyromancy. On The Deep King’s side, the minions we meet have a huge variety of powers straight out of a horror novel – most of which revolve around corrupting others. It makes for some edge of your seat action sequences that I really enjoyed.

On top of the world, McDonald has a great cast of interesting characters that I was very invested in. We meet members from all areas and walks of life that show us all the big and small jobs that keep humanity from succumbing to The Deep Kings. Speaking of which, The Nameless and Deep Kings had more depth than I was expecting and I really enjoyed learning more about them, in particular when a few get time in the spotlight. However, there is one exception to this praise about the cast, and it is really my one big issue with Blackwing – I really didn’t care about Ryhalt.

It isn’t as though I hated the protagonist, it is just that I really never felt attached to Ryhalt in any meaningful way. I believe a lot of that comes from the fact that he seemed to have little to no agency himself. A lot of our time with Ryhalt is spent watching other characters react to his personality, reputation, or rank as a Blackwing. In a large number of interactions between Ryhalt and his support cast involve them reacting to him being a Blackwing and whether or not they should respect him more. This lead to a lot of the supporting cast getting some deep characterization but leaving Ryhalt out in the cold a little bit. By the end of the book I was stuck with two conflicting feelings: the most important part of Ryhalt’s identity is that he is a Blackwing and that I cannot understand for the life of me the point or benefit to being one. It allows him access to insider information about The Nameless, gives him a rank above most soldiers (which in a military dictatorship is a pretty good perk), and helps him make the world a better place (sorta?) but I don’t really get why Ryhalt wants any of these things based on other aspects you learn about his personality. It was a speedbump on an otherwise fantastic novel, and I am hoping that Ryhalt’s character will see more development in the sequels.

With the exception of a slightly forgettable protagonist, Blackwing is an amazing debut that I greatly enjoyed. McDonald’s attention to detail and wild imagination has made a world and story worth reading about. It is definitely one of the more promising new series and I will be picking up the sequel as soon as it is available. The Quill to Live recommends Blackwing for anyone looking for a great dystopian fantasy/horror mashup.

Rating: Blackwing – 8.0/10