Review: ‘Johannes Cabal the Necromancer’ by Jonathan L. Howard

When I’m not releasing books, most of what I post on this blog is book reviews, so let’s return to our regularly scheduled programming (or irregularly scheduled, at any rate!).

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.

I picked up Johannes Cabal after a recommendation from the same friends that got me onto Brandon Sanderson; they were 100% right about that (I’m basically a Sanderson groupie now), so I was so here for this. Of course, Johannes is a very different type of story — a whimsical paranormal tale set on Earth (mostly) rather than high fantasy — but I still really enjoyed it.

As the blurb says, Johannes engages in a wager with Satan to win his soul back: gather one hundred signed contracts for the procurement of souls in a year or be killed and receive a one-way ticket to Hell. Of course, Satan isn’t totally unfair (ha!), and he is willing to loan Johannes the use of a Satanic carnival to help him on his way.

I rather liked Johannes, despite how amoral he is most of the time. He’s a man on a mission, and it doesn’t occur to him to pause and consider the ethics of his actions. In fact, he can be positively cut-throat; the fact he turns to a vampire to help him with the more human aspects of setting up a carnival is a pretty telling sign. It’s hard to know from this book whether Johannes’s personality is a result of his background (for a start, being a necromancer is rather grusome work) or whether it’s just who he is.

Given the story is set over the course of a year, it could have been quite long, looking at each of the hundred souls one at a time. Instead, we really only see a handful; the first is a bit of a case study for the approach Johannes and his crew tend to take. The middle chapters are mostly vignettes, as Johannes and Horst deal with one crisis or another, while the last part of the book deals with the last few souls and how the bet plays out overall.

This story is funny and, as I said, quite whimsical — especially the chapters set in Hell. At other times, it is quite dark. Under Horst’s influence, Johannes tends to target people who would have gone to Hell anyway — and we see enough of some of those people that I was sometimes left feeling like I wanted a shower. Still, the writing style reminded me a little of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, which is, needless to say, a high compliment. I laughed at inappropriate moments more than once.

Apparently the rest of the series isn’t quite so dark, or so I’m told. I’m curious to see where it goes next, and I enjoyed Johannes’s company. I’d be happy to spend more time with him in future — just not in a dark alley or similar!

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