Thursday, 19 August 2010

Book Review: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

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"Johannes Cabal has never pretended to be a hero of any kind. There is, after all, little heroic about robbing graves, stealing occult volumes, and being on nodding terms with demons. His purpose, however, is noble. His researches are all directed to raising the dead. For such a prize, some sacrifices are necessary. One such sacrifice was his own soul, but he now sees that was a mistake – it's not just that he needs it for his research to have validity, but now he realises he needs it to be himself. Unfortunately, his soul now rests within the festering bureaucracy of Hell. Satan may be cruel and capricious but, most dangerously, he is bored. It is Cabal's unhappy lot to provide him with amusement.

"In short, a wager: in return for his own soul, Cabal must gather one hundred others – in one year.

"One year to beat the Devil at his own game. And isn't that perhaps just a little heroic?"


When a book begins with a visit to Hell which outs the ghastly gates as anticipated by a painstakingly organised bureaucracy boasting a tree's worth of paperwork per person and three year-long wait for entry, you know you're in for an untraditional experience. In short order, Johannes Cabal, necromancer extraordinaire, breaches the red tape seeking an audience with Satan - and by the hair on my chinny chin-chin, he gets one. The pair struck a bargain years ago, you see, whereby our reanimating anti-hero sold his soul for a taste of forbidden fruit, but Cabal has since had time to reconsider the deal. So he's come to Hell to renegotiate the terms of his contract with Satan. Easier said than does, one imagines...

Eventually, however, Satan acquiesces. But he has his conditions - of course he does. A new contract is drawn up, stipulating that Cabal will recover his immortal soul when and only when he collects, in the space of a single year, the signatures of a hundred individuals; his soul for a hundred others, in short. To help him wrangle together so many souls, Satan gives Cabal command of a travelling carnival of the damned and a viscous ball of blood. The necromancer is then summarily ejected from the premises, with nothing to do but get his show on the road.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is Jonathan L. Howard's debut novel, but hardly his first time at the helm of such a creative endeavour. Howard has been puttering away behind the scenes of the video game industry for decades, as a programmer, a designer, and latterly a script writer. He's perhaps best known for his work on the Broken Sword series: adventures games a la The Secret of Monkey Island mode mostly concerned with Templar conspiracies. Now I'm a fan of the Broken Sword franchise, but not such a die-hard as to assert it's either the smartest adventure game around or the funniest. Nevertheless, on the basis of Howard's involvement with the first three installments of that series, I came to Johannes Cabal the Necromancer expecting a rollicking good time full of wit and absurdity.

Particularly on that latter count, Johannes Cabal's first outing - soon to be superseded, I understand, by his time as a detective - delivers in abundance. Cabal's excursion to a pocket quantum universe stands out, alongside his time in a haunted train station that bleeds depression into the atmosphere, and a chase around the carnival that culminates in an encounter with Layla the Latex Lady. There are moments of absolute madness throughout Johannes Cabal the Necromancer - the highlights of the whole affair - where the weird meets the wonderful and the fallout is appropriately baffling.

Sadly, absurdity does not always equal fun, and there are as many misses in Howard's debut as hits. Humour is a very personal thing, of course - you can't expect everyone to crack up at the same jokes - but after a strong start, you get the distinct sense that the comic aspect of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer has been put on the back-burner to be replaced by episodic encounters that bear little to no relevance on the narrative's driving force, which is to say the collection of a hundred souls by hook or by crook. I'd go so far as to say many of the chapters of this novel would be better set as short stories. They're pleasant diversions, one and all, but as part of a larger tapestry they do little to enrich the experience entire.

Let's face it, though: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer has few pretensions to intricate narrative. Above all else, it's a romp. As such, it's a success, albeit not quite so hilarious a one as I had hoped. Cabal is a brilliantly love-him-or-hate-him guide on a whistle-stop tour of the underworld, an anti-hero of the highest order whose acerbic wit makes some truly stomach-churning subjects tolerable. Howard, meanwhile, seems to have found his calling in genre fiction. Fun but ultimately rather forgettable, not everything about Johannes Cabal the Necromancer works, but when something does, it works on a level that surpasses many of the functional encounters in the video games Howard cut his literary teeth on. Darkly whimsical and wonderfully absurd, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer makes for a good start to a series that could well be great. If the reveal on the last page of this first book is anything to go by, in fact - an emotional surprise that gives depth and context to all that's come before - the best truly is yet to come.

Here's hoping.


Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
by Jonathan L. Howard
February 2010, Headline

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