Science fiction and fantasy
Johannes Cabal The Necromancer
by Jonathan L. Howard
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.
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Review © Ros Jackson
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