Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Johannes Cabal is, as the title says, a necromancer. He's a madman, that's for certain. But he's rather brilliant and a dedicated scientist. He's audacious in his single minded determination to continue his work, whatever the cost. And it has cost him -- his soul, for one thing, which he traded in the usual way to Satan. Only now he needs his soul back. Why should this be a problem?
I liked this book much more than I expected, and perhaps a bit more than I wanted. Johannes Cabal is not what you might call a likable character. He's a very broken person, but he has no idea that he's so very damaged. He verges on to real evil as he tosses away anything he thinks stands between him and his goal. Yet I developed a real sympathy for him, which surprised me.
Set in some indeterminate, alternate "now", Cabal takes a trainload of satanic carnies on a soul-gathering tour of the countryside -- it felt more English than American, but there are no real geographical points for reference, save that there is a Europe of some kind, and there's been at least one World War. Really, the time and place felt incidental to the plot. It's intended to be timeless, a fable.
Now, the whole idea of the Evil Carnival is well known -- Howard includes a thank you dedication to Ray Bradbury on the acknowledgments page -- but this particular angle on it is new to me. The idea of selling one's soul to the Devil is well used, too, as is the idea of wagering with Satan, but, still, I liked this particular twist and turn of it as the story developed. The part of the book I found most difficult -- and the part that engaged me emotionally -- was the relationship between Johannes and his brother Horst. They are both monsters, you see, but I kept getting echos of Frankenstein here, in that even monsters have feelings, and it is perhaps actions that determine who is the monster and who is not. I can't go further without spoilers, but the relationship between the brothers was a rich mine which, while not fully exposed, was at least very involving. I'd have liked it to turn out differently, but it was authentic to the characters. However, there is a sequel and this is a rather magical world, so I can foster a tiny hope.
As for the humor -- and this book is intended to be funny -- this isn't a laugh out loud sort of book, at least not for me. I'm fine with that. The humor was mostly dry and subtle, which is my preference, although Howard does take a few wild swings in his metaphor. It echoed Pratchett and Fforde with hints of Monty Python and avoided the sort of clowny winking and nudging I tend to find annoying.
If I wanted to dig up a quibble (and I really am not driven to quibble about this book) I'd say that the rather obvious Giant Questions are left barely sketched in. Why is Johannes so obsessed about defeating death (we get a tiny bit of explanation at the very end)? What really caused Johannes' damage, his particular kinds of blindness? Why does he both hate and love his older brother? What happens to certain other essential characters in the book after their brush with the Carnival? There's also a bit of playing with the presentation of the story -- one chapter is told in odd pieces via intercutting the much accented/misspelled/dialect-ridden school report of a young boy with the author's third person voice. I understood what was being attempted (trying to create a boy's version of being tempted and saved in his own voice) but it felt like a lot of work to make the couple of points the author was going for.
I guess I'll have to pick up the second book (sophomore efforts are so often weaker, but I'm rather hoping the whole story existed and was just broken into chunks). If any of the above sounds appealing, then you might want to take a peek into Johannes Cabal's journey, too.
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