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In Association with
Johannes Cabal The Necromancer
Jonathan L. Howard
Headline paperback �7.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

Comic fantasy is a genre that strikes me as difficult for writers to do truly well, partly because both key aspects - comedy and fantasy - need to be good and to work in harmony; and partly because its paths have been well trodden by the likes of Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt, who (amongst others) have mapped the territory pretty comprehensively, and done it with great flair at that. The problem is finding the twist on the material that will make it seem like new.

Jonathan L. Howard's first novel is an example of what I mean. As the book opens, Johannes Cabal is summoning a demon. I knew this was a comic fantasy, the dry tone of the humour had been established; so I anticipated that the conversation between demon and necromancer would make fun of the formal, archaic tone one would usually expect. And it does:

"Lo!" cried the demon. "I am here! What dost thou seek of me? Why dost thou disturb my repose? Smite me no more with that dread rod." He looked at Cabal "Where's your dread rod?"
"I left it at home," replied Cabal. "Didn't think I really needed it."
"You can't summon me without a dread rod!" said Lucifuge, appalled...

This is still amusing, but less so than it might have been, because I had a broad sense of what was coming, even though I didn't know the specifics. Throughout Johannes Cabal The Necromancer, the humour tends towards jokes that raise a smile or a chuckle - but I never laughed out loud, which is what I really look for in a comic novel.

It's time I said more about Johannes Cabal The Necromancer as a novel. It's the story of a wager: Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the Devil, to see what difference it might make in his work as a necromancer - and found that it made experiments impossible to conduct. So now, Cabal wants his soul back. Satan, not being inclined to give away souls just like that, insists on a wager - Cabal can have his soul, if he persuades a hundred others to sign theirs away within a year; the Devil even provides him with a carnival to draw people in.

There are aspects of Johannes Cabal The Necromancer which make it unsatisfying as a novel. The background is sketched in so vaguely that it almost might as well be a blank curtain. For example, it's difficult to tell where the novel is taking place (Cabal himself is apparently German, the carnival is apparently American, but the land through which they travel resembles Britain most strongly); some aspects of Cabal's background are introduced without enough explanation for the reader to fully appreciate their significance even in the current volume; and there's a suggestion that the existence of magic is common knowledge in the world of the story, which would surely make a difference to the story if it were so - but it's not confirmed either way.

One suspects that Howard is holding a lot in reserve for later books in the series, but the overall effect is to make the present volume feel more like a prelude than a fully coherent tale in its own right. This sense is not helped by the novel's structure, which is highly episodic, placing the emphasis too much on individual set-pieces; the final third of the book, where Cabal has one day to collect his last two souls, could almost be a separate story.

Some of the set-pieces are very good: two that stand out to me are a creepy sequence where an enchanted doll draws a man away from his partner; and a young boy's visit to the carnival, told partly in the form of his own badly-spelled schoolwork. There's also a considerable momentum to that long final section. But my overall impression of Johannes Cabal The Necromancer is of a work that's only partially successful; I hope that future volumes will see the series hit its stride.

Johannes Cabal The Necromancer

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