JOHANNES CABAL THE NECROMANCER by JONATHAN L HOWARD
PB, 335 pages, Headline
“The Necromancer” is Jonathan L Howard’s debut novel, published back in 2009 and the first in an expanding series to feature Johannes Cabal, our titular necromancer, and his undead-but-charming brother Horst.
We begin with a season in Hell. Hell in this case, being the kind of insane pen-pushing bureaucracy that would give a Vogon squelchy dreams. Cabal has no time for bureaucracy. What he does have is a rather large gun, and a mission – to get his soul back so he can continue his mysterious Great Work. He sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the powers of necromancy, and now he wants it back.
But the Devil would not be out of place running a Vegas blackjack house, and everyone knows you can never win against the house. He sets Cabal a task, to collect 100 souls for Satan in exchange for the return of his own. And to help Cabal achieve this, he’s going to give him something to help him out and even the odds.
Yes, a bona-fide travelling fairground complete with sideshows, freaks and a demonic steam train to move it all around in. Cabal has a year to move his fairground around the country collecting as many souls as he can before time runs out and he loses his own soul forever.
If this all sounds like it could be from a game, well, yes. The narrative does owe a debt to Howard’s background as a games designer, but it also, and the author confesses it himself, owes something to Ray Bradbury’s other-worldly carnival in “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Which is no bad thing. Howard revels in the grotesque, the weird, and the theatrical much the same way Kim Lakin-Smith does in Cyber Circus, but while that was a dark and in places unsettling book, “The Necromancer” has a wry, warped sense of humour running though it, particularly in the meticulous Cabal’s interactions with both his brother and the recently-undeceased staff running his dark carnival.
The humour won’t be for everyone. In places it comes across as too clever for its own good, and comic fantasy can be hit or miss. Howard’s writing is an acquired taste, but fans of Pratchett and Jasper fforde will lap it up. And Cabal is, at least at first, a difficult protagonist to like, outshone at every turn by his more charming vampiric brother Horst, who reluctantly agrees to help him in his quest despite Johannes sealing him in a tomb for eight years after an earlier adventure went wrong. However, persist with it and the fractured humanity of the necromancer begins to seep through in little glimpses, notably in an affecting scene set in an abandoned and haunted station. Johannes Cabal does bad things, but it turns out he’s not such a bad guy, driven into conflict with his better instincts by his overwhelming desire to reclaim his soul. And the reason behind that desire is kept for a delicious twist right at the end of the book, so subtly telegraphed the reader almost doesn’t see it coming, but making perfect sense when it arrives.
It’s a clever book, arch and knowing, funny in places but more inclined to raise a wry chuckle than a roar of laughter. It wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, and beneath the veneer of wit and cynicism, at the core of the story there’s a little kernel of gold.
Like I said, not for everyone, but worth sticking with. You might find you enjoy it more than you thought you would. Give it a whirl!
ETA : – My friend Pete Sutton who blogs at http://brsbkblog.blogspot.co.uk/ has just posted a review of “The Brothers Cabal” – the most recent of JLH’s Cabal novels – check it out!