Fiction Reviews

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

(2009) Jonathan L. Howard, Headline, £7.99, pbk, pp352, ISBN 978-0-755-34785-8
(2009) Jonathan L. Howard, Anchor Books, Can.$18.95/US$15.95, pbk, pp290, ISBN 978-0-767-93076-5


This is the first novel describing the adventures of Johannes Cabal and the title tells you a lot about our lead character and what he gets up to. Having enjoyed Johannes Cabal The Detective (Editor: Robert Grant agrees too), the second in the series, I thought I would find out how his adventures started.

I hesitate to call him our hero because there is nothing to particularly like about him; he is utterly self-centred and he has aspects you may well dislike. He is cold, calculating, determined, intelligent, and a shrewd observer of all around him. He is a very professional necromancer and is driven to master his science at any cost, and I do mean ANY cost (especially if someone else is paying it). Whilst he has no interest in killing people per se, indeed, he thinks it is a waste of perfectly good life, he does not hesitate to rapidly dispose of anyone who gets in his way or might prove an excessive inconvenience.

Cabal has entered a deal with Satan whereby, in exchange for his soul, he has been granted the skills necessary to his calling. Satan, predictably, has not been entirely honest with him and it has transpired that he still needs his soul if he is to be successful in his endeavours. The book opens with Cabal summoning a demon and demanding to be taken to Hell as he wants words with Satan - and a new contract! We arrive at the Gates to find that whilst being consigned to Hell might be quite easy, actually getting in is just the first torment. Thanks to Arthur Trubshaw, a nasty piece of work that has taken bureaucracy to its lowest and hottest depths, the paperwork to gain entry includes filling in an average of nine thousand, seven hundred and forty seven forms, each to be completed correctly and without corrections before the next is issued (after having rejoined the far end of the very long queue), and with the largest having fifteen thousand, four hundred and ninety seven questions. Cabal, however, is not there to do paperwork, he wants an audience and he wants it NOW (or ELSE!).

After some 'persuasion' is applied to various demons, Cabal gets his audience and, after some discussion back and forth, Satan grants him new terms but only if he can deliver one hundred souls, complete with signed contracts, within a year. To help Cabal in this task, Satan lends him a diabolical circus and sends him back into the world.

This is just the opening chapter and reading it I struggled not to laugh out loud (which would have disturbed those watching the television). It was extremely funny and poked fun at so many of our concepts of Hell, demons, diabolical contracts, and the like.

Back in our world, Cabal sets to work, populates the circus with the dead, the undead, and creatures most certainly not of this world. As the year progresses he has one scrape after another, some natural but others less so (well, Satan never did play fair), as he works towards his target. When the year comes to its end so does the story, and the end is both fitting and satisfying.

Cabalís views and determination, combined with the witty way the book is written, keeps the story interesting, amusing, and enjoyable throughout. Along with Terry Pratchett, it seems that Jonathan L. Howard can be relied on for inventive, well plotted stories with humour running throughout; a pleasure to pick up and hard to put down.

Peter Tyers

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