Recent Reading: Stray Souls, Johannes Cabal: The Detective

I don’t read very quickly anymore.  I used to be able to devour a book within a few sittings, sometimes devoting all my spare time across a day or two to it.  Now, what with the day job (part-time though it is) and the writing and editing I do, I don’t seem to have the headspace for that kind of dedication.  I read mostly while on breaks at my day job, and then when I’m at home I get sucked into the vegetating mindset of the internet.

Tsk, me.  TSK.

But as should be evident by my previous Recent Reading post, I do manage to chew my way through books slowly, and I like to take recommendations where I can.  So this is another of those posts.

Stray Souls, by Kate Griffin

I want to preface this by saying that I’m not really a fan of urban fantasy.  I do like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, but I’ve picked through a few other UF series and after a while the constant deluge of werecreatures, vampires, fae and whatever else the particular writer uses as their ‘unique’ critter becomes a bit wearying.

Kate Griffin also has another series in this world which is more of a typical serious UF, following a main character who features in Stray Souls but only as background.  And I have to say, I like that choice.

Stray Souls is…  Well, it’s been compared to Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but I have to say that I like this book a lot better.  Neverwhere was another book that struck me as a bit self-serious, while this one was funny — rarely laugh-out-loud so, but I found myself smiling (or smirking, as I do) at many an amusing bit.  I would say that this is kind of Neverwhere if Terry Pratchett had a hand in it, or Dresden Files if the focus was on the the slightly inept low-powered amateurs that Butcher sometimes has running around in the background, or maybe something by A. Lee Martinez.  (By the way, Gil’s All Fright Diner is a lot better than I thought it’d be.)

The book focuses on a few ‘Magicals Anonymous’ members, which as the name might suggest is a support group for people with abilities but not a lot of skill.  A neophyte shaman, a cranky goblin, a druid with hay fever, an extremely fastidious vampire, a gregarious banshee (she’s great), a troll gourmand…  All suddenly thrust into a search for the stolen soul of the city of London, with the protagonist of the other more-serious series forced to flap around in the background in a drive-by mentoring ‘hi the bad guys are on to me, just passing by to ram a bus into this building, stay safe bye’ manner.

So I thought all of the fumbling and the support group niceties and the awkward friendships between the Magicals was really endearing — the sort of sitcom side of a UF world that you see a little bit in shows like Being Human.  What fell a bit flat for me were the payoffs; at least in this book, Kate Griffin doesn’t show us the meat of any of the revelations the characters have, instead playing it superficial and usually through the eyes of a third party.  But I really, truly appreciate the protagonist not being a thrower of thunderbolts or a sassy lady in black leather or whatever is passing for cool in UF these days.  And having the main character of her other series pop in a few times to get hollered at for being cryptic really amused me.

4 out of 5 stars.



Johannes Cabal: The Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard

I believe I got onto this book via a review of the first book by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn.  At the time, I just noted the character name and the striking cover, so when I picked this one up, I thought it was correct.

Alas!  This is the second book!

But really, I didn’t have any problem with it.  The titular Johannes Cabal is more than happy to explicate a bit upon what happened in his first outing (The Necromancer), and in retrospect I think the idea behind this one draws me more than that of the first; evil carnivals aren’t really my sort of thing, but murder-mysteries on steampunk airships are much better.

Anyway, our protagonist is just enough of a blend of genius, sociopath and socially inept grumpypants to balance on that razor’s edge of a good anti-hero.  I gather that he’s recently gotten his soul (and its attendant conscience) back after the events of the first book, because he’s mostly grumpy about the pangs he gets from said conscience — especially where it concerns one Leonie Barrow, daughter of someone he wronged in the unread first book.  And whatever came between them there, I didn’t even need to know, because they pick up immediately like old antagonists that nevertheless have some strange respect between them, and therefore become (uncomfortable) allies once the murder plot starts to unfold around them.

Leonie and Cabal take a fairly equal part in unraveling the plot, which I liked; they each bring unique skills and insights into it, and while neither is particularly invested in the other’s survival, they seem to feel bound by their shared past against these strangers now around them.  That’s always a dynamic I find intriguing, and the fact that Cabal is such a sass…  And the author’s jealousy-invoking way with words…  I confess I paused now and then just to seethe at the man’s ability to string sentences together like intricate jewelry.

This is one book that I actually read at home — that I didn’t want to wait for the next day-job break to continue.  It’s not a transcendent work by any measure, but the combination of the characters and the beautifully wrought voice-perfect prose and the subject matter (I have a thing for necromancers), plus the post-action short story at the end, made me very happy I read it and eager to read the third…and the first, evil carnivals notwithstanding.

5 of 5.

About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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