Johannes Cabal, a brilliant scientist and notorious snob, is obsessed with raising the dead. Tormented by a dark and harrowing secret, he travels to the fiery pits of hell to retrieve his soul, long ago sold to the Devil. Satan, incredibly bored and hungry for a challenge, proposes a little wager: Johannes has one year to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will lose his forever. To keep things interesting, Satan generously throws in a traveling carnival to help Johannes collect on the bargain. With little time to lose, Johannes raises a crew from the dead and enlists his brother, Horst, a charismatic vampire, to be his right-hand man. Once on the road, Johannes and his troupe of reprobates cause mayhem at every stop. But are his tricks enough to beat the Devil at his own game?
From the blurb above, so far this book sounds like Tom Holt, or Terry Pratchett, or any other comedic fantasy author, right? No, definitely not! Jonathan L. Howard infuses Johannes Cabal the Necromancer with flavours from other authors and from films, but the book as a whole is unique and very, very funny. It has the same gruesome humor as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, but remains distinctive through the use of snappy one-liners and characters you’ll love to hate.
The pacing is perfect. We start with an entertaining visit to Hell (a bureaucratic nightmare, with a pen-pushing clerk as a doorman). Then, the plot kicks into a higher gear and sweeps through a year of thrilling adventures as Johannes Cabal attempts to win his wager with Satan by running a twisted carnival. Howard gives us a sample of Cabal’s attempts to collect souls, but doesn’t overdo this aspect of the novel. He still spends time on character development and on other escapades, so that the reader never becomes bored.
Though Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is pitched mainly as comedic fantasy, it contains some extremely spine-tingling and creepy moments, especially the whole scene in the Druin crypt. Howard also takes us to some darker places. We watch with horror as a young lad is enticed to sign his soul away, and as a young mother is encouraged to commit infanticide.
Over the course of the novel we learn that Johannes Cabal is a Very Bad Man, yet he remains endearing to the reader. From his inept social skills to his way with sarcasm, Cabal shines from every page. In particular, his exchanges with his brother Horst virtually crackle with snark:
“Given my profession, being careful is what separates the successes from the failures.”
“Ha! What makes you think you’re such a success, Johannes?”
“Because I’m not tied to a post, up to my knees in bonfire.”
The other characters are just as memorable, from the dozy zombie pair Dennis and Denzil who drive the train, to Bobbins, one of Cabal’s nefarious creations (“...the result of some of Cabal’s tinkering with the basic ‘a rag, a bone, a hank of hair’ formula; in this case by the addition of a tin of Brasso metal polish. As a result everything that Bobbins did, he did brightly”).
The only disappointment is that the world building is almost non-existent. We never learn whether this is a bizarre alternate version of our world, or if it’s another world entirely. Howard focuses so tightly on his fabulous mix of characters, and on building the carnival into an entity that lives and breathes, that we do not see anything beyond this. I would love to see more of the world that Howard has created.
Luckily, it appears that a second novel in this series is on the way, which I now look forward to with great excitement. This is the sort of book that, having finished it — even in the wee small hours of the morning — you want to wake up all your friends and insist they begin it immediately. In fact, I insist you all go and grab a copy — now!