Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
By Jonathan L. Howard
Published by Headline, June 2009. (Paperback February 2010.) Review copy.
Review by Mark Yon
Imagine a book that mixes the darkness of Ray Bradbury’s Dark Carnival or Something Wicked this Way Comes with the cynical humour of Christopher Moore. Jonathan Howard’s debut novel is such a book. It is surprisingly good.
The tale is an old tale done well: that of the Faustian deal. Johannes Cabal, Necromancer wants his soul back, and is prepared to do a deal with Satan to do so. He’s lucky in that he catches Satan in what seems to be a forgiving mood. Result: Johannes is given a year to collect one thousand souls for Satan with their signatures on the contracts.
He’s not alone in his endeavours. He’s given collateral (a drop of Satan’s blood, which reduces as its resources are used) and a steam train, complete with mobile carnival.
Along for the ride is Horst, Johannes’ more charismatic vampire brother, Bones, a voodoo character created from rags, bone and hair, an all-too-knowing crow, and a host of undead crew.
With the tale set up, much of the book is thus spent travelling and picking up signatures. Along the way there’s a mixture of short story-like chapters and the ongoing tension created as the deadline approaches.
So why does this one work? I’ve said before that humour is very, very hard to get right. What Jonathan does here though is pretty good. The humour is a combination of slapstick and intelligent comedy, the tone varied and multidimensional. There is a cynical knowingness throughout the book that is both entertaining and engaging. This is an impressively assured debut.
Perhaps the main reason for success is the characterisation, and in particular of the titular lead. Johannes is a multifaceted and contradictory character, at times both likable and unlikable. He is a man of science, yet works with the occult. His caustic sarcasm can be both witty and yet annoying. He shows compassion towards ghosts of the past and yet paradoxically thinks nothing of getting innocents to sign his contracts. This creates a character that is both amusing and perhaps more importantly, interesting.
The books supporting cast also enhance the reader’s impression of events. Johannes’s relationship with his brother is typically familial, being both bickering and yet touching. On a broader palette we meet enemies from Johannes’ past, and are amused by his relationships (or perhaps non-relationships!) with his colleagues and compatriots.
The ending is also rewarding, being both amusing and satisfyingly apt. In this amoral morality tale, things tie off nicely but leave the situation open for sequels (of which there will be – the next is due in April 2010.)
The book has a subtitle on its front cover: A Devilishly Thrilling Comic Fantasy. And so it is.
Mark Yon, February 2010.