Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ex Libris: Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

Even the Devil will fear a man with nothing to lose.

Among my bookshelves is a special shelf that holds my favored books. Here are a handful books that I could actually say that I loved them from cover to cover, from concept to execution to prose to even that sense of wonder one gets when opening a book. One was Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial, the other was Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection while a third was Matt Ruff's Set this House in Order.

I can admit that despite the fact that I already had expectations that these might good books, I was surprised to learn as I read them that they were great books. Now this doesn't happen often: sometimes the problem of what could be an interesting book is the execution or the prose. Sometimes I just can't get into the book no matter how hard I try. This is why I'm glad to find another book to number in my shelf: Jonathan L. Howard's Johannes Cabal the Necromancer.

The protagonist of this book, of course, is Johannes Cabal, a necromancer though he's more of a researcher of Dark Knowledge who converses with demons and digs graves for his ingredients. He's a cold-hearted bastard who gets what he wants and runs rough-shod over anything in his way-- and in this case, he wants his soul back, which he traded to Satan as per your usual Faustian exchange for knowledge. Satan, for a laugh, makes another deal with Cabal but for a price: a hundred souls in exchange for Cabal's. As a bonus, Satan gives Cabal a dark carnival complete with a train to help him gather the souls.

Of course, when you deal with the Devil, you don't expect fair play. On the other hand, when you deal with Cabal, you hinder him at your peril.

With this set-up, the fun starts rolling with Howard's witty, arch humor evident in every page. The author plays the laughs sharp despite the fact that the socially inept Cabal is as humorless and crotchety as a hoary old nun in a convent and the topics-- devil-dealing and soul-buying-- can be macabre as hell. One could say that in Howard's book, the world is a straight man that gets mugged by a comedian.

And speaking of the straight man, Cabal has his own with his vampire brother Horst, a charismatic, somewhat more compassionate (in the sense that being betrayed by his brother and left to rot in a mausoleum with a vampire had made him realize his own flaws) version of the necromancer who has his own share of regrets (see mausoleum). The two play off well with each other and their interaction gives a more in-depth perspective to Cabal (rather than just some dick protagonist who likes to carry a bag of spells and a big gun).

There are other minor/supporting characters that mark the page when they grace the story with their presence: Cabal's undead henchmen Denzil and Dennis; Bones, the demonic carnival crew chief; Joey Granite, the intelligent strongman; Timothy Chambers, a hapless boy whose life is ruined by Cabal's mercy; and Cabal's nemesis, the former policeman and ever-suspicious Frank Barrow.

(I mention Cabal's mercy to point out that Howard's protagonist isn't one-dimensional: he browbeats bullies, he runs away from better opponents but he can also outwit them, he has changes of heart and refuses to explain them away. In short, he's pretty human despite knowing how to raise the dead.)

If ever there's one flaw to this jewel, I did find the climactic confrontation somewhat of a let-down. However, the end itself more than makes up for it with a hint to the secret behind Cabal. And this, more than anything else, makes me want to look forward to Howard's next book about the necromancer Johannes Cabal. All in all, highly recommended. (Rating: 4 paws out 4)

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