The Brothers Cabal – Turns Out Horst is Back

51j2c226w2lI’d like to start this one out with an apology. I’m four books into this five book series and I have officially run out of ways to make the “Cabal [method of transportation]” joke. I’ve spent kind of an embarrassing amount of time trying to come up with a way to make it work and I just can’t. I’m sure this is a personal failing on my part, and a better (funnier actually funny) writer could do it. I bet you’d still be actually laughing out loud at it. For that, I apologize. I’m the worst and I’m sorry. (Hey, side note, there’s gonna be mild spoilers. Please see the title for an example.)

Moving on to the actual meat and potatoes, we’re reviewing The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, the 4th book out of 5 in the Johannes Cabal series. You can find my reviews of the previous three books here, here, and here. I’m guessing if you’re reading a review of a book this far into a series you’re either already reading it yourself or are still somehow trying to convince yourself to buy the first one by seeing if the series is worth it overall. Well it is. The first two books are fun, the third book is where the series really hits its stride, and this book is a culmination of all of the best elements of the series. I cannot recommend reading the exploits of Johannes Cabal enough.

On the topic of Johannes Cabal, well at least relating to him, is the matter of the title. Readers of the first book will be very familiar with Horst Cabal, Johannes’ brother. Through a set of circumstances that were entirely the fault of Johannes, Horst became a vampire prior to the events of the first book. He was an absolute highlight of the first novel and was immediately elevated to one of my favorite characters in general.

SPOILER ALERT

He also died at the climax of the first book. Believing himself to have condemned Johannes to death and eternal damnation for the sins and general atrocities he’d committed throughout the book, he watched the sun rise and turned to ash, dying permanently.

Or so we thought! I was toying with the idea of just not talking about the title and playing this close to the chest, but the book has been out for four years at this point and I didn’t think being coy was worth it when the first chapter is literally Horst waking up from being resurrected. He obviously plays a huge part in the novel and is as good a POV character as he was a side character in the first book. He is the perfect foil to Johannes and the scenes where they verbally spar are beyond excellent. It’s too bad the series has to end, as I would devour a smaller episodic series featuring the brothers Cabal having misadventures until the end of my days.

SPOILERS DONE

I hope you read that regardless of spoilers because otherwise this next paragraph isn’t going to flow at all. The humor that has been prevalent throughout the series is at its peak in this book. Johannes continues to be drier than the Gobi, the supporting characters are shocked and amused by him in turns, and Howard continues to make almost Pratchett-like commentary on the ways of the world. I could gush for pages on how funny and amusing the book is, but I think this snippet sums up the moment to moment voice and almost insouciant humor in every page:

One of the women was watching the engagement through her own pair of binoculars. She looked up towards the castle, and their gaze met through several sets of lenses and prisms. The sergeant had a faint premonition that this meeting did not bode well. The woman lowered her glasses and looked directly at him. She had a very intense look about her, and she seemed to be mouthing something.

The sergeant was just noting that she was a very handsome woman, from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean he would guess, when his eyes unexpectedly burst into flames. This distressed him, and he staggered around, blood-red fire erupting from the sockets, while he explained the degree of agony he was enduring and how much he would appreciate assistance of an unspecified form from those present. Then his head caught fire and his conversation became very scream orientated.

I don’t really know how else to exhort you to read this series if you aren’t currently. The plot is tight and fun, and the ending of this book sets up the fifth and final book perfectly. The series has grown into itself and Johannes Cabal himself has had an incredibly enjoyable character arc from cold, uncaring, soulless necromancer to…well, cold, mostly uncaring, soul-possessing necromancer with a soft spot for ghouls.

I just really like the series. I really like this book. I’ve never read something that felt so much like it was written for me and my personal taste, but this series really just nails it. If you have a dry, morbid sense of humor and enjoy a good action tale that features a morally dubious but good-hearted-in-the-end character, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading the Johannes Cabal series and The Brothers Cabal.

Rating: The Brothers Cabal 10/10
-Will

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Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – It’s A Frighteningly Good Time

Boy howdy it’s mid-August and you know what that means: horror review time! There’s nothing scarier to me than 90 degree days with 90% humidity, and the electric bill that will be coming from me running my AC on the highest possible setting for months on end. In honor of the true terror brought on by the depths of summer, we’re hopping back on the Cabal Train!

Wait…no, that was the first book. The Cabal Dirigib-

No, no that was book two. Let me try again.

We’re back on the Cabal Long-Journey-Through-Mysterious-Lands-With-Mysterious-Travel-Partners-That-Involves-Multiple-Transportation-Methods.

Perfect.

51toff8i01l-_sx331_bo1204203200_For those of you who forgot, we reviewed the first two books in the series quite some time ago, you can find those reviews here and here. As a quick catch-up (though I don’t know why you’d be reading the review of a third book in a series if you had forgotten, kinda weird to be completely honest), the series follows a German necromancer (of some little infamy) named Johannes Cabal on his various travels and travails. To this point in the series proper (spoilers follow) he has bargained his way out of a deal with the devil and foiled an aristocratic plot aboard a dirigible. Having literally walked away from the dirigible’s crash landing, he has arrived back at his three-story Victorian townhouse that has been somehow moved to a deserted countryside through less-than-mundane means. As he recovers from his unexpected turn to heroism, he is approached by three men from the Fear Institute who want him to be their guide through the Dreamlands, and this is where our story begins.

The Fear Institute is a small group of intelligentsia that has dedicated itself to eradicating what they call the “Phobic Animus”, which is a silly name they have for the physical embodiment of fear itself. They believe that by eliminating this Animus they can eliminate fear in the human race and lead mankind to a more rational way of living and thinking. The problem, for them, is that the Animus resides in the Dreamlands, which are notoriously difficult to access and travel in. Based on the fact that the book isn’t over after three chapters, I think it’s fairly safe to spoil that they do end up in the Dreamlands, and it is there that the vast majority of the book takes place.

Any of you that have read Lovecraft in the past will have at least a passing familiarity with the Dreamlands, as they feature in one of his most popular stories: “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. It is in this book that readers will solidify this series as a favorite or decide that it’s not for them after all. In previous books there were scattered references to the Cthulhu mythos, one-off moments of horror, and the occasional weirdness among what were mostly fun adventure stories. This is a stark contrast to that as the lovecraftian horror and sense of the weird really takes its place at the fore. I will not spoil the specifics, but the group’s entry into the dreamlands reads as a straight cross of parts from “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Music of Erich Zann” in only the best way. There are many more moments which brought to mind my favorite aspects of cosmic horror and instill a true feeling of mortal minds in a place not meant for them. As someone who enjoys that style of writing and that particular flavor of horror, this book was so far up my alley it was in the adjacent street. I can, however, see this as being a major issue if you are a reader for who the horror was tolerated in order to get to the action or detective scenes. There are still moments of almost Sherlockian deduction from Cabal, but the horror and weird has taken a front row seat and does not relinquish it for the majority of the book.

While this was certainly the spookiest of the Cabal novels thus far, it was also the funniest to me. Until this point in the series Cabal has relied mostly on having one character as the foil to his dry and biting wit. Horst, in the first book, played the sidekick and doting protector. Leonie, in the second book, acted in more of a friendly antagonism. In this book, we have three travelling companions, who all have very distinct personalities, that fall victim to Cabal’s jibes and sarcasm. In a way, this tripling of party members leads to a similar tripling of sardonic remarks and cutting jokes, all of which were as funny as any in the previous books. I find Howard’s ability to make me laugh in the midst of spine-tingling terror absolutely astounding and was continually impressed by how he always seems to find just the right balance of scares and scoffs.

The Cabal series has only gotten stronger with each entry, and after each story I find myself liking Johannes himself even more. His character arc is absolutely fantastic and never feels unrealistic to me. His slow transition from actual villain to reluctant hero has been believable and fun on every page. I cannot recommend reading the Cabal series highly enough, and while the series’ mix of cosmic horror and sardonic humor may throw some people for a loop, I have enjoyed each novel more than the last (and the short stories are well worth a read, too). Give it a go and I guarantee you have a ghoulishly good time.

Rating: Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – 9.5/10
-Will

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
-Will

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer – Like Johannes’ Zombies, Flawed but Functional

Hi again, and welcome back to the Spooky Cor- no, wait. Hmm. Let’s try that again, shall we?

51ai-ncxy-lHi again, and welcome to something-analogous-to-but-not-quite-as-spooky-as-the-real-Spooky-Corner! I’m here today to review Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, the first book in the aptly-named Johannes Cabal series. As something of a connoisseur of horror books, zombie books, books involving Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and books that make me laugh I find it surprising that it’s taken me this long to hear about this series. Currently on its fifth main installment (with an additional 5 supplementary books), Johannes Cabal clearly has something going for it. Let’s find out what that something is.

We’ll begin with a quick rundown: Johannes Cabal, the main character and essentially a differently-named version of the titular character from Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Reanimator (funny how similar the titles are…eh?), has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for necromantic powers and he wants it back. He goes to hell with the intention of making a wager with Satan, and does so. The rules are that he must provide Satan with 100 souls in the next year or he will be killed and damned to forever remain in hell. To make this less of a sisyphean task, the devil provides Cabal with a demonic carnival that he will act as the proprietor of for the duration of the year. This all happens in the opening of the book, and the remainder is spent touching on various scenes from the year Cabal spends on the road (well, rails, it’s a train).

There are really only two main characters in the book (three if you include Satan, which is a bit of a stretch but I could see an argument for it), Johannes Cabal and his brother, Horst. As such, the majority of the book follows them and their friendly (from Horst’s end, Johannes flatly hates him) sibling rivalry. Much of the book’s humor comes from one of the brothers reacting to something the other has done, and the vast majority of it was charming. Like the protagonists of most horror books, though, Johannes is…well he’s not a shithead, and I wouldn’t call him strictly “evil” per se. Let’s put it this way, he’s someone who has no qualms collecting 100 other souls to get his own back, which puts him firmly in the “not a good person” category. Does he do some good things? Yes, but if you’re the type of reader who needs a noble, selfless paragon of good as your main character, this is definitely not going to be the book for you. However, the specific ways in which Cabal is sort of terrible lend a lot to the humor of the book and work very well with the story being told.

Considering the subject matter (a necromancer on a task from satan to steal souls), you could be forgiven for assuming a lack of humor. You would be very wrong. There’s something for almost everyone here, Cabal’s personal sense of humor and dialogue is incredibly dry and sardonic, the zombies he creates are bumbling and almost entirely inept sources of slapstick humor and what would be sight gags if this were a movie, and some of the descriptions of scenes had me guffawing. I was particularly fond of Cabal’s painfully awkward run as a carnival barker, as a man dressed like, and with the demeanor of, a mortician yelling about how astounding a freak show is really hits me in the funny bone. Not every joke landed, but even the jokes that didn’t quite hit for me didn’t have me rolling my eyes, so I think that overall the humor in this book was pretty on point.

Sadly, the same can’t be said about the horror. Considering the inspirations for this book (Something Wicked This Way Comes and the various Lovecraft shorts), I’m disappointed to say that there was only one scene that really had my hair standing on end, and even that was brief. I would have liked to see more of a focus on the horror aspect of the book, but I think if I’d gone into it expecting that, it wouldn’t have been quite so disappointing for me, so your mileage may vary.

I also had some issues with the end of the book. It felt rushed to me and a lot of plot threads that I thought deserved some time got wrapped up very quickly. It left me feeling unsatisfied and and somewhat disappointed, as those plotlines had been dealt with very well up until that point. Having them resolve in the matter of a few pages cheapened what could have been some very impactful moments of character development. This wasn’t enough to ruin the book for me, but I think 50 more pages or so would have brought this book’s score up considerably for me. It really is too bad when the aspects I don’t like in a book are so close to the end, as I can’t help but feel it colors my perception of the book’s quality up until that point, particularly when it’s a book I had been thoroughly enjoying.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was a fun book that I flew through. I think the way it told its story was clever and entertaining, as long as you don’t mind how close it stands to the stories that it takes its inspiration from. While I wish that a novel set in the same universe as the Cthulhu Mythos was at least a little scarier than this was, and I had some problems with the resolution of certain plot threads, I would recommend that everyone give this book a shot. At 291 pages it’s not a huge commitment, and you’ll know by about 25% whether it’s something you want to keep reading or not, so try it out and see for yourself.

Rating: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer – 7/10

-Will