Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

Today I'm looking at the first in a series of books which since I can get them from the library and they cost me nothing I may explore further. As you may have guessed from the title, this book is about Johannes Cabal, a necromancer by profession. In order to gain his knowledge of necromancy, Cabal sold his soul to Satan, and actually agreed to give it up in advance rather than waiting until he died, assuming that it was of little value to him. Much to Cabal's frustration he has discovered not having a soul has begun to interfere with his research into the nature of death and he has been forced to call upon Satan once again to see if he can get his soul back.

Satan, of course, is not in the business of handing souls back to anyone who asks but consents to engaging in a wager with Cabal. Cabal will be given one year to collect exactly one hundred souls in exchange for his. Satan will even provide him with resources to assist in this quest. But if Cabal fails, then Satan shall kill him immediately, putting an end to Cabal's efforts to conquer death. Although Cabal finds the very prospect of a wager distasteful it is the only way he can get his soul back and he agrees.

The basic bones of the story has been done before. Heck, it was part of the plot of Dead Man's Chest so it's hardly anything new. However the execution is fairly original and the concept of a travelling carnival out to steal souls is interesting as well. As most of the carnivals I've attended in the past were for church benefits there's a certain disconnect I enjoy on a personal level. And Howard does a really good job of making Cabal feel like a fleshed out character. You may disagree with what he's doing and his methods, but over the book you at least gain an ability to understand him and begin to see him as more than the brusque necromancer.

Howard also has a dry, witty tone reminiscent of Pratchett or Gaiman but being distinct enough that the book's definitely his own creation rather than an imitation of somebody else's work. And that's really hard to pull off so kudos to him for it. But where Howard excels at the plot, I feel like he fails rather critically in world-building. I found myself asking questions about the universe such as when are they? Cabal wears a frock coat, top hat, and cravat, a fairly Victorian outfit, but the story at least takes place after World War I and I have reason to believe it takes place after the Beeching Cuts of the 1960's. (Listen, I know things about railroads.) I'm also a little confused where they're supposed to be because Cabal is described as having a German accent, but it seems the book is implied to take place in Britain but I'm not sure if that was explicitly stated.

I was also curious as to what the status of magic within the universe was. I got the impression that magic wasn't a common, everyday occurrence and maybe most people had no contact with it at all. However, towards the end of the book a lot of people seemed to know what necromancers, knew they existed, and had very strong opinions on them. So it's almost like magic is uncommon enough to be rare, but common enough that its existence is taken seriously as a fact of life. I just kind of wish there had been more clarification about that in the world-building.

I will say, without spoiling the book, that the plot takes a really dark turn towards the climax. Like, I know this is a story about one man trying to get a hundred souls to replace his in hell, but it was still kind of humorous. Dark humor or gallows humor, certainly, but humorous. But it then takes a really serious turn away from humor that left me pretty shaken and the book almost loses the humor in the last third or so of the novel. But I ended up liking the resolution and was pretty satisfied with how the book ended so Howard did a pretty good job.

Overall Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer is pretty interesting. I will say it's similar to stuff by Pratchett or Gaiman, but Howard manages to put his own spin on it to make it unique enough to be entertaining. My biggest issue is the world-building which I felt could have been expanded a little further but otherwise it's fairly enjoyable.

- Kalpar

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