Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

I've found that the very best stories usually hook me with the first paragraph.  Sure, some books start slow then pick up steam (or not), but I've rarely seen a book start strong and then go downhill.  So I'm always delighted when I find a book whose first lines make me want to keep reading: I just know that there is a good story to follow.

Such was the case with the first book in Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal series, which I recently bought on a whim because I liked the cover.  And, fortunately, as soon as I read the first paragraph I was reasonably sure that I had not misjudged the book by its cover:

Walpurgisnacht, the Hexennacht.  The last night in April.  The night of witches, when evil walks abroad.

It was short, it was sweet, and it set the tone for the rest of the book.  This is the story of Johannes Cabal, a thoroughly callous and self-centered scientist who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the secrets of necromancy.  Now he wants it back.  Cabal journeys to hell to barter with Lucifer and makes the following wager: he has one year to consign one-hundred souls to damnation or lose his own for eternity.  Satan doesn't send Johannes away empty-handed, however: he lends him a long-abandoned carnival train to help him on his quest.  Cabal, an anti-social introvert, considers the prospect of running a carnival more of an ironic punishment than a boon.  One sympathizes.  Imagine the character of Sheldon Cooper, from T.V.'s Big Bang Theory (or me) forced to rely on personal charm to seduce unwary patrons into signing away their souls and you will have a good idea of just how out of his depth Cabal is.  Satan doesn't like to make these wagers easy, otherwise everybody will be wanting one.

This book was inspired by Ray Bradbury's classic, Something Wicked This Way Comes, when Howard wondered where an evil carnival would come from.  In Johannes Cabal the Necromancer he sets out to answer this question.  The story is cleverly and eloquently written and is laced with sardonic wit that is likely to appeal to fans of British comedies such Black Adder.  Indeed, were this book ever adapted to the screen, I can't imagine anyone better than Hugh Laurie to play the title role.  Cabal is an unapologetic misanthrope who is more than willing to sacrifice anyone, even his own brother, Horst, to achieve his goals and who won't hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way.  Yet we are allowed, on occasion, to catch ephemeral glimpses of the good man locked deep within who gives us hope that despite Cabal's rapid moral deterioration, redemption might not yet be beyond his grasp.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer may not be to everyone's taste, but if you have a love of the macabre and an off-colour sense of humour that makes normal people stare aghast, then it might just be for you.

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