2010’s Johannes Cabal the Detective is the second volume in Jonathan L. Howard’s Ruritanian fantasy steampunk series.
Detained by the Mirkavians on a specious pretext, amoral necromancer Johannes Cabal finds himself drafted into Count Marechal’s bold plan to elevate the Mirkavian Empire from a minor historical footnote to a modern reality. For that to happen, the Count needs the King of Mirkavia to make an inspiring speech. Too bad that the king is dead. The Count orders Cabal to revive the king just long enough to deliver a speech.
What could go wrong?
The Count strikes Cabal as the kind of guy who kills disreputable allies when they’re no longer useful. Cabal arranges a small surprise. In mid-speech, the King suddenly descends into brain-eating mania. It’s hard on the bystanders, but it gives Cabal the distraction he needs to flee the count.
First Cabal relieves clerk Gerhard Meissner of his identity. Then Cabal takes passage on the airship Princess Hortense. The Hortense is an impressive vessel and this is its maiden voyage. Cabal, however, is mainly interested in the airship for its destination outside Mirkavia. A turnip cart would suit him just as well, provided it got Cabal far from the Count.
Two unforeseen developments complicate the journey. The first is the unexpected presence of Leonie Barrow, whose path he crossed back in the days when he was collecting a hundred souls for Satan (long story). Leonie could expose Cabal for who and what he is. Luckily for Cabal, she chooses not to do so.
The murders, on the other hand, are harder to ignore. The airship’s maiden voyage is not long, yet it is plagued with mysterious disappearances, apparent suicides, and attempts on the necromancer’s life. Simple self-interest dictates that Cabal expose the miscreants responsible. That is, if the miscreants don’t manage to kill Cabal first.
This is set in one of those universes where history is enough like ours that there’s an England, but different enough that magic works and the laws of physics are different. It’s probably best not to think too much about that.
More precisely, this is set somewhere not too far from Ruritania (which is name-checked) in a region of Europe filled with quaint pocket nations (invented rather than historical). Such nations are convenient, as they can be as corrupt as necessary to the plot without offending any modern inhabitants of said regions.
Steampunk often views the 19th century with rose-coloured glasses, focusing more on the pretty little hats and magnificent uniforms and less on the pogroms, vicious nationalism, and deranged warmongering imperialists. This series takes a different approach. The author populates Mirkavia and its neighbours with nasty folk and corrupt governments, compared to whom a simple necromancer with an occasional sideline in human souls seems a reasonable sort of chap.
I think my brain isn’t wired quite correctly to enjoy the bad-people-confounding-much-worse-people angle, at least not this week. Still, the prose was reasonable and the mystery functional. Not exactly my thing but it may be yours.