When I think about how I was introduced to the Johannes Cabal novels by Jonathan L. Howard, I always have to laugh a little. The fourth novel was a Christmas gift from my best friend (who you might remember drew me some fan art for Crimson Sky not too long ago), and when I told her I had never heard of the Johannes Cabal books, she went through a mental check list: Supernatural monsters? Check. Dynamic brother duo? Check. Clever sarcasm and wit? Check. Zombies, vampires, necromancers, and werewolves? Check. Steampunk setting? Check. This could not have been more my style of book, and so I reacted instantly: I bought the first three books in the series and spent the last couple weeks enjoying absurd adventure after absurd adventure. Of the fours novels to date, the first book, The Necromancer is my favourite. Not to say that the other three books aren't great– they definitely are, and it was hard to choose between this one and the fourth one– but I decided to review a novel that wouldn't allow for lots of spoilers, since certain events and characters travel from one story to the next in unexpected ways. The Necromancer is definitely a novel for intelligent, thoughtful readers who like a bit of darkness in their protagonist. Okay, a lot of darkness, but what do you expect when the novel opens with your main character going to Hell to have a chat with Satan himself?
I love all the covers of these books! They're totally unique!
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.
Right from the get-go, The Necromancer pulls the reader in by introducing an unconventional anti-hero, and one who doesn't have a soul. Say what you will about our "hero" Johannes Cabal (I certainly have), but there's no denying he's unique to paranormal fiction and horror. I can't imagine many people are calm and relaxed when they make yet another deal with the King of Hell, let alone morally content when they make a deal– Johannes can have his soul back, if he provides Satan with a hundred more in return. In one year.
How best to take advantage of vulnerable fools to get what he wants? A carnival of course!
I won't lie– the idea of a carnival surrounding a train literally comprised of and worked by fiends of Hell, is one of the most outrageous, inventive, insanely fun ideas I've read in years. The setting is perfect, the rides ghoulish, and the scenarios where souls are bartered truly creepy. I just wish I had been able to read more! The details are there, but Howard's writing style plays on the reader's imagination and psyche, allowing them to interpret the setting as they see fit.
As far as the characters, everyone is great (I admit that I have a soft spot for Bones, one of the first "helpers" enlisted by Johannes), but the most powerful characters are of course the two brothers– Johannes, the sarcastic and currently soulless brother, and his older sibling Horst, a charismatic vampire who has a bone to pick with Johannes. Both characters have their own endearments. I loved Johanne's deadpan remarks, and his ambition was a truly fascinating beast. Horst is all charm and, despite his initial feelings, dedication for his brother. To me, the strongest points in the story were the scenes where Johannes and Horst started bickering at one another. Truly great chemistry, which was why the end left me so bummed out.
My gut instinct is to recommend this book series to everyone I know... but that might not be the best thing to do. Some of the subject matter is pretty shocking, and while I promise that no one received anything they didn't deserve (mostly), there are a couple moments where readers might feel uncomfortable, especially since one of the characters they're supposed to be rooting for is a man who will literally murder for the sake of experimentation. That being said, I was addicted to The Necromancer, and feel that it would be best enjoyed by fans of Supernatural and Dexter, if they ever wondered what their characters would be like in the past, with classic wit, and a lot more Cthulu.
Yes, there are Cthulu references in this series. As if you needed another reason to read it.