This is the fourth book in the Johannes Cabal series, and the only one that uses its main character sparingly. I loved the first three Cabal novels, particularly Johannes Cabal the Detective, which is the second one. I also love the handful of Cabal short stories, particularly Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day, the first Cabal story and a brilliant introduction to a brilliant character. Johannes Cabal is a German-born man who was raised from middle childhood in England. He is a necromancer ‘of some little infamy’, a career he undertook at the age of 18 when the girl he loved accidentally drowned. Enraged by the injustice of her death, he declared war on death in general, and devoted his life to defeating it. In the process, and we are later informed that this is standard practice for necromancers, he sold his soul to Satan, setting up the conflict in the first novel, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer.
Cabal is an intelligent, learned, competent, dour, unfeeling, unkind, pragmatic monomaniac who very literally stops at nothing in pursuit of his goals. He is my favourite character in modern fiction. The problem with The Brothers Cabal is that there isn’t nearly enough of him. Instead, the first half of the narrative is carried by his handsome, charming brother Horst, who had been unintentionally made a vampire when Johannes abandoned him in a cemetery years before. Horst is Johannes’s polar opposite, and although their sibling rivalry and the infantilising effect that Horst has on his supremely competent brother is entertaining, Horst alone is not especially compelling. Every novel in this series drags in the middle, to varying degrees, but The Brothers Cabal dragged for most of the first half. Its characteristic phenomenal ending mitigated that, but only slightly.
One of the things I love about these books is the language. It gets a bit too wink-wink clever for its own good at times, but Howard turns a good phrase and expresses humour in a lovely dry English way that is sometimes reminiscent of PG Wodehouse, if Jeeves were a dour German necromancer. Consider the title of The Brothers Cabal‘s prologue…
IN WHICH WE ARE REINTRODUCED TO A PAIR OF INDIVIDUALS WITH UNCONVENTIONAL INTERPRETATIONS OF THE WORD ‘DEAD’
…and you’ll see what I mean.
The world of these books is also worth mentioning. It’s slightly steampunky, slightly alternate-universy, and carries a whiff of the 19th century while making mention of things that are decidedly 21st. Magic exists, and vampires, werewolves, and necromancers, but also Hell and demons, and also movies and PhDs in criminology earned by women. Airplanes don’t exist, but people travel by airships and by entomopters, a form of machine based on the flight of insects. Trains run on steam. The money is pre-decimalisation British. Germany is un-unified and there are many European countries that slightly resemble ones in our world, but are still noticeably different. It’s fascinating.
Five stars for Johannes Cabal, three for Horst, four for The Brothers Cabal.