Title: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
Author: Jonathan L. Howard
Genre: Urban Fantasy
“A charmingly gothic, fiendishly funny Faustian tale about a brilliant scientist who makes a deal with the Devil, twice.
Johannes Cabal sold his soul years ago in order to learn the laws of necromancy. Now he wants it back. Amused and slightly bored, Satan proposes a little wager: Johannes has to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will be damned forever. This time for real. Accepting the bargain, Jonathan is given one calendar year and a traveling carnival to complete his task. With little time to waste, Johannes raises a motley crew from the dead and enlists his brother, Horst, a charismatic vampire to help him run his nefarious road show, resulting in mayhem at every turn.”
Withnail and I, Addam’s Family, Monty Python and, frankly, anything by the Coen Brothers; I’ve always had a soft spot for the kind of black and morbid humour that this book is positively dripping with. It was recommended to me by a very dear writer friend who shares my penchant for the macabre so as soon as he mentioned it to me it went to the top of my TBR pile. As if the premise wasn’t enough: a travelling carnival of the dead harvesting the souls of the living; it wasn’t until I’d got hold of a copy that I realised the author was one of the writers credited on my favourite childhood video game, Broken Sword. I knew that if this novel reflected at all the wry and satirical humour I associate with that game then I’d be on to a winner. (Side note: fans of retro point-and-click adventures really should check out the Broken Sword series)
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is Jonathan L. Howard’s dark debut and the first in a series which, at the time of writing, has five novels and several short stories to its name. This first book is an excellent introduction to the eponymous protagonist and his grim, cadaverous world. Howard seems to have done the impossible with his leading man. Sardonic, unpleasant, immoral to the point of sociopathic, Johannes Cabal is the very definition of anti-hero. And yet somehow I was still rooting for him. Perhaps it was the way Cabal carried out his gruesome work with detached efficiency and a Sherlockian derision for all those philistines who fail to appreciate the delicate pursuit of science that I engaged with. Or perhaps waging your soul against the devil himself will make anyone look like a hero.
I thoroughly enjoyed Cabal’s voice and his chorus of supporting characters. The strained dynamic between he and his brother, a rather morally-motivated and charismatic vampire, was certainly one of my favourite parts. I found Satan and his pompous minions hilarious and the idea that getting into hell involved an infinite amount of form-filling and queuing was just inspired.
The narrative is largely linear and very mission-based which I suppose is unsurprising considering Howard’s background as a game designer. Although I found this simplistic in many ways, it did not detract from my enjoyment. Howard has an intelligent grip of language, profuse with humour and allusion, which gives depth to his characters, action and setting in ways the complexity of his plot may not. Although some of his prose could be accused of being verbose, I personally enjoyed weaving my way through the complex rhythms of his writing style and I am most certainly looking forward to my next dalliance with the Brothers Cabal.
If you like this, you might like: Other books in the Cabal series, Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch