Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Johannes Cabal The Necromancer

by Jonathan L. Howard


Before starting this novel I flipped to the back to read the acknowledgements. I know it's an odd place to begin, but credits and other endpaper fluff can be telling. When even the thank-yous are funny it's a big, fat billboard of a clue that Jonathan L. Howard cares about the details.

The opening doesn't disappoint, and this story of demons and occult summonings delivers belly laughs from the first pages. Johannes Cabal has traded his soul for the arcane knowledge of necromancy. Now he needs it back. But Satan isn't in the habit of returning lost property, so he has no choice but to accept a wager: if he can persuade 100 people to sign their souls over to the devil within a year he'll get his own back. But if he loses, his life is forfeit as well as his soul.

As part of the bargain Satan gives him a demonic carnival. Johannes also recruits his daylight-challenged brother Horst to help him out. Horst has qualities Johannes lacks: charisma, a sense of humour, and an understanding of the kind of things people like, to name a few. Johannes is dry, scientific and ever-serious, the cold of the mortuary a part of his nature. Yet Howard manages to make readers care about his acid-tongued anti-hero who seems to be only out for himself. The author also has a lot of fun with Cabal's extensive vocabulary, deploying some of the best words in the dictionary to great comic effect.

The carnival itself is full of colourful characters like Layla the Latex Lady and Bones the living skeleton, and it attracts a host of freaks, demons, ghosts and madmen. With such zany company you might expect a tone of constant hilarity, but that's not the whole story. With comedy it's often hard to give the plot enough tension, since fun and fear tend to pull a book in opposing directions. Yet things soon get serious for Johannes, and an urgency underpins all the weirdness as he battles for his eternal soul.

The action takes place at no particular time or place, similar to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series. It's a nowhere that looks a lot like England at some point in the early 20th century, but then again maybe not. The author conjures up a kind of vague, fairytale version of England where people say "old chap", play cricket and get the collywobbles. So we can add nostalgia to the growing list of this book's charms.

But back to one of the novel's best features, Johannes. Throughout the story we're left wondering what drives him, and just how low he'll stoop to achieve his ends. Is he sly enough to beat Satan at his own game? Is he even as evil as the people around him believe? He's certainly enigmatic, but there's no doubting one thing: he's an unforgettable creation. If you like Terry Pratchett and Dan Abnett's Triumff, make room on your shelves.

Book Details

Year: 2009

Categories: Books

  Male Protagonist  

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
More about Jonathan L. Howard


Max     29th July, 2010 18:59pm

I enjoyed this. It was hard to place the story in time, which was sort of disconcerting. But it was soooo funny and that more than made up for it.