Monday, February 1, 2010

Book review-Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer

The first effort from author Jonathan L. Howard, Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer is a wittily written and entertaining first effort, even if its charms are mostly on the surface. The titular character, Johannes Cabal, is in hock to the devil after selling his soul to learn the secrets of necromancy. Unfortunately for Cabal, he realizes that his lack of a soul is keeping him from completing his experiments and journeys to Hell to get it back from the Big Daddy himself. Cabal wagers that he can get 100 souls for Satan in a year, and Satan throws in a defunct carnival for Cabal to use to attract those who may be persuaded to accept eternal damnation in exchange for riches or looks (or a goldfish or candyfloss). With the help of his vampiric brother Horst and a team of inhuman carneys and sideshow freaks, Cabal's traveling circus takes to the railways as Cabal tempts, tricks, and traps visitors into giving up their souls.

Johannes Cabal has an irreverent, dry humor reminiscient of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens and scenes with the demonic carneys, escapees from a lunatic asylum, and bewildered townsfolk are snappy and amusing. The book suffers from a disjointed plot and the characters are all surface shine (perhaps apropos for a book about a carnival). Instead of building the tension through Cabal's year-long search for souls, the narrative moves abruptly from the early days of the carnival to the last fateful night before Cabal's performance review with Satan, and the book's ending is particularly weak. Cabal himself is not particularly engaging: not evil enough to be entrancing and not likeable enough to make the reader root for him. His undead brother, Horst, is a more interesting character but doesn't get the chance to do more than appear and caution Cabal about his underhanded dealings before blurring into the night, and Cabal's abrupt about-face is shallow and unfounded.
Still, certain scenes in the book shine, especially Cabal's two trips to Hell. Cabal's encounter with Hell's gatekeeper, a bureaucratic minion given unlimited authority and an endless stack of forms, is particularly hilarious and wince-inducing. Satan and his underlings are cleverly sketched, which makes the thinness of the rest of the book's narrative all that much more disappointing, but hopefully Howard will publish a meatier book in the future.

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